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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