Around
Tappan Square
Math
Made Merry
They
take the test because they want to, and it’s OK to score a
zero.
story
and photos by Yvonne Gay
Someone
passing by the classroom of Professor of Mathematics Michael Henle
last November might have mistaken the loud bursts of laughter and
excited chatter as a teacher’s lesson plan gone terribly awry.
That is, until the passerby realizes that the hubbub was centered
on whether or not a “countable infinite set can have an uncountable
collection of nonempty subsets, such that the intersection of any
two of them is finite.” This was just one in a series of complex
math problems that students pondered in preparation for the national
William Lowell Putnam Mathematical Competition in December.
During
weekly practice sessions last fall, Henle provided 12 students with
“vintage” problems from previous competitions. Students
took advantage of the informal atmosphere, choosing to gather in
small groups or work independently while nibbling on snacks and
eagerly exchanging ideas about problem solving.
“My
background is simply a life of enjoying math,” said Christopher
Kelly ’04, a math and physics major. “I have always enjoyed
the feeling of working hard to solve a problem and then having it
all click. The test is so hard that scoring a zero is quite expected
for most people. My only goal is to enjoy myself.”
It’s
difficult for the nonmathematically inclined to understand how
anyone could get this excited about equations and theorems, but
2,900 undergraduate students from 450 colleges would suggest otherwise.
“This
is the most prestigious collegiate mathematics competition in the
U.S. and Canada,” Henle explains. “We compete with schools
like Harvard, MIT, Duke, and CalTech, which have many more math
majors to draw upon and sometimes offer whole courses in problem
solving to train their students for the competition. It’s a
good experience for our students.”
Launched
in 1938 by the Mathematical Association of America, the Putnam competition
“stimulates a healthy rivalry in mathematical studies in higher
education.” The twopart, sixhour exam, which takes place
at each participating school, is composed of 12 problems worth 10
points each. In theory, the top score is 120, but in actuality,
it is typically 100 or less. Scores are usually less than 80, and
nearly half of the participants often score zero.
The
exam is not limited to mathematics majors (to a lesser extent, physics,
computer science, and chemistry majors also take part), although
most students have a strong background in the subject. Math major
Alexander Zorach ’03 handled a course load of advanced calculus,
rings and fields, and geometry while training for the test last
fall; he also dedicated 40 hours a week to math outside the classroom.
“I
enjoy solving math problems, and I like being challenged,”
he said after one of the group’s weekly practice sessions.
“Last night, I worked on one problem for an hourandahalf
straight before solving it. It’s not so much the final product,
but the process that I enjoy. Often the most fascinating and rewarding
parts of a problemsolving competition are the partial results and
interesting tricks that you find halfway through. I also feel that
it improves my thinking skills.”
On
December 1, Oberlin’s competitors painstakingly pored over
each test question, hoping to land a score of 10 or better. Three
months later, Henle received the good news. His students had finished
in an impressive 47th place out of 450 schools. Two of the teammates—Jed
Davis ’03 and Raymi Dyskant ’02 —ranked in the top
17 percent out of 2,900 students.
“My
goal is to see interesting problems. I hope that one day I’ll
be able to solve more of them,” says Nan Wong ’04, already
setting her sights on next year’s competition. “[I also
want to] get the highest score in the College someday.”
