On Your Marks, Get Set, Math! | Connecticut Public Radio

On Your Marks, Get Set, Math!

Nov 18, 2014

Credit Adrian_DOF / Flickr Creative Commons

In high school the math teacher who broke my spirit was also the head football coach. When he handed back your tests he called out the position you'd play on the team based on your number. So End was good. You didn't want him yelling halfback as he tossed your test paper towards you; that meant a score in the 40's or worse. I was dragging along miserably in his course so my mother hired a tutor through a local college. His name was Hare and he was newly arrived from India. His accent was so dense that I often could not understand what was being said to me so we communicated through numbers and I started to understand math. I think I wasn't all that bad at it. I got a great S.A.T. score in math but I was a struggling C student because the only man who ever communicated with me was the man who couldn't reach me with words.

Competition, intense training and long standing international rivalries are words usually associated with the Olympics. But long before the first Olympics ever occurred, ancient scholars like Archimedes and Pythagoras were competing in a very different type of pursuit: Math. Today, countries from around the world send their best and brightest to pit brain against brain in a variety of number-crunching competitions. This hour, we talk with one such competitor, along with two icons in the field, about the world of competitive math.

In a sense, math is a lot like sports. Speed, skill, practice, and methodology are all required. Those who demonstrate ability are encouraged to excel while those who struggle to perform often find other pursuits to engage in. Just like top athletes, top mathematicians like to know who's best.

Perhaps it's human nature which compels us to compete, or in the case of mathematics, perhaps it's the six figure pay-outs. Yes, that's right! In at least one math-based challenge, centered around what are known as the Millennium Problems, a correct solution to any one is worth a million dollars. There are six problems in total so solving all of them is worth... well, you can do the math.

Share your comments below, email us at colin@wnpr.org or Tweet us @wnprcolin.

Today's show was produced by Josh Nilaya.


Xiao Wu is a pre-med student at Yale University and is the 2013 and most recent Recipient of the Elizabeth Lowell Putnam Prize for the top female performer in the prestigious Putnam Mathematics Competition

Dr. Mark Saul is the 1984 winner of the Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching as well as the MAA’s (Mathematical Association Of America) Director of Competitions. Mark’s spent over 35 years teaching and promoting the advancement of mathematics. across the world.

Dr. Keith Devlin is “The Math Guy” on NPR’s Weekend Edition. He’s the Executive Director of the Human-Sciences and Technologies Advanced Research Institute (H-STAR) at Stanford University and a fellow of the American Mathematical Society. He’s the author of 32 books including The Millennium Problems: The Seven Greatest Unsolved Mathematical Puzzles Of Our Time.


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