Count Down: Six Kids Vie for Glory at the World's Toughest Math Competition
Just how anti-math are we Americans? Let mathematician Tatiana Shubin tell you about growing up in the former Soviet Union: "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."
It's a small but telling moment in Steve Olson's book, Count Down. His account ostensibly documents the hurdles the U.S. team overcomes in order to compete against other high-school students from around the world at the 2001 International Mathematical Olympiad. Actually, though, the book takes readers on a grand tour of our own attitudes toward achievement, talent, genetics, youthfulness, and aesthetics, among other things.
The deep topics are lightly propelled along by the intriguing story of the math contest. Over two days, the U.S. team must solve six thorny problems, each involving abstract proofs. Olson uses one problem to tell the story of each of the team members: From Tiankai Liu, the youngest member at his first Olympiad, to Reid Barton, a senior on the brink of being recognized for four outstanding years at the competition.
To comfort the math-challenged, Olson relegates much of the intricacy of the problems themselves to a 10-page appendix. Which leads to one of the book's few failings: If you're going to relegate much of the actual math to an appendix, why not address the problems in a little more depth? They're certainly complex enough to warrant it. But that's a minor criticism: Count Down isn't so much about the math as it is about they way kids learn and develop their own intellects. It's at its best when it looks closely at how the U.S. educational system teaches children math. Olson portrays a system geared toward helping along the slowest pupils while pretty much leaving the brightest to fend for themselves. In a society that aspires to meritocracy, schools that can't or won't nurture their best students are at best deeply troubling and at worst terrible failures. But the book's emphasis is on the positive: Olson shows just what attracts students to the satisfying beauty of mathematics and the hard work required to perfect their art.