Six Kids Vie for Glory at the
World's Toughest Math Competition
By Steve Olson. Houghton Mifflin. 244 pp. $24
Math can be scary. Just the sight of a complicated math equation, laden with exponents and square root signs and algebraic letters, inspires the same sort of revulsion as an antennae-waving critter scurrying along a baseboard. Many people are quick to volunteer that they were never good at math. You'd never hear someone say, "I was never any good at reading and writing," but to profess a mathematical ineptitude is to claim a perverse badge of honor. Perhaps it's a subtle signal that in high school you weren't a geek. You didn't carry sharpened pencils in a pocket protector. You dated.
But now comes Steve Olson and Count Down, a remarkably engaging little book that demystifies math and probably ought to be read by anyone living in a technological society. Heck, anyone with a brain could get inspiration here. Though Olson focuses on six American students at an elite competition called the International Mathematical Olympiad, he explores the broader questions of human intellect, creativity and the mental heroics we label as genius.
He shows that mathematical wizardry is not a supernatural gift but an extension of normal everyday cognition. There are no miracles here. The young math prodigies of the narrative are like every Olympic athlete, training themselves to achieve at a dazzling level. They might start with abundant natural talent, but taking that talent to the highest level requires hard work, resilience and, most of all, an ability to take astonishing mental leaps while enduring tremendous competitive pressure.
There is an element of playfulness in these young people. "A math competition is more like a game than a test -- a game played with the mind," Olson writes. When taking a break from the competition, the students engage in complicated permutations of chess, or word-association games -- anything to keep their brains sparking. Some wander over to the piano to experiment with an original composition. They all play a lot of ultimate frisbee.
The author does not expect the reader to understand the math problems in the book, which is good, since I didn't understand most of them. Olson keeps the math to a minimum, and relegates to an appendix the complicated solutions to the problems. The author's writing style is strikingly calm and assured -- almost a doctor's bedside patter.
Some writers might have spent more time trying to create a tick-tock drama in the tale of the Olympiad (we tend to expect competition stories to follow the formula of the movie "Hoosiers"), but Olson doesn't manufacture any false tension. Instead, he writes the book more like a math equation, with each student sequentially introduced as a factor (variable?) in the story that he is constructing.
He shows each student trying to solve one problem. In the course of displaying their minds at work, Olson takes some side trips into a number of broader issues, such as the question of why boys do better than girls in high-level math competitions, and why many Asian Americans seem to be mathematically gifted. Olson's explanations suggest that culture plays a more powerful role than biology in mathematical aptitude. Mathematical virtuosity in some immigrant groups tends to decline with each generation that the group is in America. The gender differences in math excellence are pronounced at the elite level, but the biological explanations seem thin. Girls in many countries do better in math than American girls do. Of the 473 Olympians in the competition Olson covers, only 28 are girls, but one girl, from Bulgaria, finishes better than all but nine other competitors. Even those who argue that boys have a biological advantage concede that powerful cultural forces may be keeping many girls from wanting to jump into a realm of mathematical competition so heavily freighted with testosterone.
I admired the elegance of Olson's scientific digressions. However, I also hungered at times for a bit more detail, taking in (for example) some of the proliferating literature on how the brain works its magic. But Olson's narrative equation might have become too unwieldy had he strayed further from his central characters and the six math problems they're forced to solve.
By the end of this satisfying little book, the reader will likely suspect that he or she has untapped cognitive potential. You'll want to solve a puzzle, play chess, do the crossword -- engage in some form of mental calisthenics. Or maybe just balance the checkbook. *
Joel Achenbach is a staff writer for The Washington Post and author of the forthcoming "The Grand Idea: George Washington's Potomac and the Race to the West."