Yesterday I had to have my sixteen-year-old daughter try to translate her teacher’s fall term comments for me: “What’s a Webster apportionment method?”
I pretended to understand her answer, then ventured, “What the heck is a planar pentavalent graph?” Ultimately I abandoned the evidence and accepted the verdict: my lovely daughter is “a mathematician’s mathematician.”
Today undergraduate math wizards get to do something not on the menu even at Hogwarts: they offer up the day. . .voluntarily . . .for fun . . .ordinarily smack in the middle of semester final exams. . . to toss in an extra six straight hours of math.
It is Putnam Day.
Now this may not strike everyone as the Best Ever Way to Spend a Weekend Day during the holiday season, but my family has its quirks. Our branch assuredly prefers black holes to Black Friday. Surely it can’t be that uncommon for Thanksgiving dinner to be abuzz with excitement over the upcoming Putnam proofs?
Although I am a lawyer with a particular fondness for appellate practice, I do not miss a wink of shockingly rare sleep in anticipation of the first Monday in October.
But as someone who did not inherit the Math Gene, I get a contact high from the excitement of wondering what dozen problems will be unmasked on the first Saturday in December.
In 1948 my father earned a Putnam medal (like a concert band piece with soloists, math can be both an individual and a team enterprise). It is bedecked with the crane family crest of William Putnam, who similarly admired those who can do mathematics–particularly in collegial (as opposed to collegiate) form.
More than fifty years later, my sons began joining the fun. One is sitting in another state at this moment with his number 2 pencils, churning out magical sequences of pure mathematics.
Like marching band–and unlike my brand of ultra-adversarial law–advanced mathematics can be a wonderful team enterprise.
What’s not to love about an annual competition among the best young mathematical minds in which, among 120 possible points, the median score often is . . . zero? Zip. Naught.
How could one not be smitten by practice problem sets in areas like “Joyful Complexities”?
Who could want to sleep in after Friday night when morning beckons by offering up a dozen doozies of increasing difficulty, perhaps with a bleary eye-opener along the lines of:
Players 1, 2, 3, …, n are seated around a table and each has a single penny. Player 1 passes a penny to Player 2, who then passes two pennies to Player 3. Player 3 then passes one penny to Player 4, who passes two pennies to Player 5, and so on, players alternately passing one penny or two to the next player who still has some pennies. A player who runs out of pennies drops out of the game and leaves the table. Find an infinite set of numbers n for which some player ends up with all n pennies.
Piece of cake.
Let’s try some more, now that the sun is over the yardarm:
I wish I spoke what Primo Levi described in A Tranquil Star as “the slim and elegant language of numbers, the alphabet of the powers of ten.” But I admire and can always learn something from those who do.