9 Students Compete in National Math Competition

At left, Daniel Greengard ’08, Albert Hill ’07 and David Pollack, assistant professor of mathematics, work through problems, which were part of the William Lowell Putnam Mathematical Competition held Dec. 2.

Posted 12/20/06
During a recent mathematics test, which spanned six hours, Daniel Greengard ’08 believes he only got one question completely correct out of 12.

But getting only one question correct puts him in the top half of all test-takers, explains David Pollack, assistant professor of mathematics and faculty-advisor for the 67th Annual William Lowell Putnam Mathematical Competition held Dec. 2.

The Putnam exam tests originality and technical competence, and contestants are expected to be familiar with formal theories embodied in undergraduate mathematics. All the necessary work to justify an answer and all the necessary steps of a proof must be shown clearly to obtain full credit.

Greengard was one of nine Wesleyan students who competed in the national competition. The annual contest began in 1938 and is designed to stimulate a healthy rivalry in mathematical studies in the colleges and universities of the United States and Canada.

“Since the Putman problems come from many different areas of mathematics, occasionally we see a problem that somehow relates to a course that one of us is taking, but rarely do theorems from the course help,” says Greengard, a mathematics major who has competed three times. “Only basic knowledge of math is needed to solve most of the problems. For solving the Putnam problems, creativity and cleverness are much more helpful than knowledge of math.”

Although practicing for the test is not necessary, Pollack ran Putnam practice sessions every Friday afternoon.

“The practice sessions allow the students to work through similar problems together and share ideas with one another,” Pollack says.

But during the test, they compete as individuals, which involves taking two, three-hour examinations under the supervision of a mathematics faculty member. Since the test grading is extensive, results won’t be posted until April 2007.

Prizes are awarded to the institutions with the five winning teams. The top three teams receive cash prizes of $15,000 to 25,000. The five highest ranking individuals are designated Putnam Fellows by the Mathematical Association of America.

Putnam exam-taker Albert Hill ’07, who is double majoring in mathematics and music, says most of the problems can be solved without using anything above linear algebra and multi-variable calculus. He recommends anyone who enjoys thinking creatively about intricate math problems would enjoy taking the exam.

“These aren’t problems you find on homework,” Hill says. “These require multi-level, multi-step thinking and are much more interesting.”

The competition is open only to regularly enrolled undergraduates, in colleges and universities of the United States and Canada, who have not yet received a college degree. No individual may participate in the competition more than four times.

The other students who competed this year include Jacob Goldin ’07, Daniel Hore ’07, Surendra Kunwar ’10, Jamie Macia ’07, Isaac Levy ’09, Yudhishthir Kandel ’09 and Nathan Fieldsteel ’10.

The William Lowell Putnam Mathematical Competition is administered by The Mathematical Association of America.

By Olivia Drake, The Wesleyan Connection editor