Sonderbooks Book Reviews by Sondra Eklund

Sonderbooks Stand-out 2004
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*****= An all-time favorite
****  = Outstanding
***    = Above average
**      = Enjoyable
*        = Good, with reservations


*****Count Down

Six Kids Vie for Glory at the World's Toughest Math Competition

by Steve Olson

Reviewed November 18, 2004.
Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 2004.  244 pages.
Sonderbooks Stand-out 2004, #1, Other Nonfiction

My wonderful husband bought me this book, knowing I’d love the topic.  I can’t promise that the rest of my readers will find it as enchanting as I did, but I was fascinated.

Count Down looks at the International Math Olympiad, focusing on the 2001 competition, which took place in Washington, D. C.  Steve Olson shows us the six problems on that year’s competition and uses each problem to introduce us to the six high school students on the American team.  Along the way, he discusses the notions of genius, competitiveness, and creativity.  He keeps the tone light and entertaining, but provides some thought-provoking insights.

Every year, thousands of high school students take the American Mathematics Competition tests.  Back when I was in high school, I had the highest score in my high school for three years in a row.  Last year, my son set the stage to do the same thing by getting the highest score in his high school as a tenth grader.  High scorers on this test take the American Invitational Mathematics Examination.  A few of my siblings have been in that group.  About 250 of the top scorers on the AIME take the United States of America Mathematical Olympiad.  I’ve even had one brother invited to take that test.  (I know my brothers will correct me if I don’t have that right—did more than one of you get that far?)  From the top twelve finishers on the USAMO, the six members of the US International Mathematical Olympiad team are chosen.

As you can tell, it’s an ongoing family tradition to be interested in mathematical competitions.  This book also mentioned MathCounts and the Study of Exceptional Talent (middle school students taking the SAT), both things my son has been involved in.  I was delighted to find a book with all these in it.  I’ve always been good at math and have a Master’s degree in it, but the students featured in this book were astronomically above my own abilities.  I found the story of these people and the highest level of math competition fascinating.

What makes someone good at math?  Is it a trait they are born with, or does it depend on how much time they give to it?  How does a person get the flash of insight necessary to solve a difficult problem?  How do they have the creativity to try something that wouldn’t be obvious to so many others?  Why do first- and second-generation immigrants tend to do better than native-born Americans?  Does this have anything to do with the way we teach math or our attitudes toward math?  Why have so many fewer women than men competed at the international level, especially from America?  These are some of the questions this book explores while showing us one particular competition and six particularly brilliant students.

After giving the basic background information, Steve Olson begins each chapter with one of the six questions from the international competition of 2001.  He uses the questions to introduce the six members of the U. S. team, including their background and how they got interested in competitive mathematics.  We find that they are not typical “nerds” and have well-rounded interests.  He also explores aspects of success at this level of competition—things like creativity, insight, talent, and competitiveness.  He gives the general idea of each solution, with details in an appendix.  

For the three most difficult problems, I found it annoying that he did not give the complete solution in the appendix.   He uses phrases like “Through some fancy calculating, you can show…” and “you can prove (with some difficulty) that….”  I understand not burdening every reader with those details, but it would have been nice to have listed them at least in the appendix.  I have to admit that not only could I not solve the problems myself, I couldn’t fill in too many of the missing details of the solutions.  I would have liked to have seen it done.  However, for the most part I could follow the information that was given and found the problems intriguing.

Even more intriguing was the look at these students who achieved such levels of brilliance and the look at the many aspects of mathematical genius.

I suppose part of the reason I enjoyed this book so much was that it spoke to my own little fantasy.  Could I have ever gone so far in math?  Judging by the problems, the answer is certainly No, but it was fun for me to imagine what it would have been like to compete at that level, and fun to think about the problems.  This is the first book I've seen that talks about such a thing, and I enjoyed reading about it.

There were also some interesting insights on the teaching of math in America.  A math coach interviewed said, “I was brought up and educated in the old Soviet Union, so I had a different perspective on mathematics.  When I was growing up, everybody knew that the smartest kids on the block were doing mathematics, and we were very well respected.  We weren’t math freaks, we were smart kids, and even people who weren’t interested in mathematics would respect us.  It was very different when I came to this country.  Whenever someone asked what I was doing and I said mathematics, people would immediately shrink from me, as if I had said something unpleasant.  I couldn’t understand that.”

In another section, Steve Olson says, “When someone performs well under difficult circumstances, we can admire that person for his skill and pluck.  When someone performs well under intense competitive pressures, when the eyes of the world are focused on that person’s every action, our admiration turns into something closer to awe.  And perhaps that’s the greatest argument in favor of competition.  It can produce moments not only of great achievement but also of great beauty.”

I highly recommend this book to math teachers, math enthusiasts, high school students interested in mathematical competition, and to anyone interested in aspects of genius.  This is a thought-provoking and entertaining book.

Copyright © 2005 Sondra Eklund.  All rights reserved.

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