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Could Your Math Skills Win the Putnam Prize? Probably Not – PCMag


The Mathematical Association of America’s annual Putnam Competition is a top math prize for undergrads. Executive Director Dr. Michael Pearson discusses the competition’s football rivalry roots and how it’s evolved to embrace AI.

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You’re good at math, but are you Putnam good?

The Putnam competition, held each year on the first Saturday in December, attracts teams of math geniuses from US and Canadian colleges, who compete for cash prizes and bragging rights. Several previous winners have gone on to win the Fields Medal, the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for mathematics.

Organized by the Mathematical Association of America (MAA), which was founded in 1921, the award has become even more important amidst the STEM explosion in US schools; coding classes and DIY toys are no longer fringe activities. After the dust had settled on the 2018 competition, we spoke to Dr. Michael Pearson, MAA executive director, about the competition’s football rivalry roots and how it’s evolved to embrace AI.

PCMag: In the MAA’s book about its first 50 years, it says the association’s roots lie in 19th century US scientific expansion. It was about the need to ensure a steady flow of sufficiently trained mathematicians emerging from schools and colleges. How does that translate to today?
Dr. Michael Pearson: Our origins are still very consistent with who we are today. It’s no longer about mines and railroads, but climate modeling, AI, and machine learning. Mathematics remains important in society, and critically important in the scientifically driven world we live in today, with development of tools such as AI and ML.

There’s also the need for more and more people to have an understanding of the potential and limitations of those tools, so we can manage, monitor, and limit the applications to where they are appropriate. We feel the need for training people mathematically has only increased in recent years.

Tell us about the competition.
Founded in 1938, the William Lowell Putnam Mathematical Competition takes place annually on the first Saturday of December and consists of two three-hour sessions, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. During each session, participants work individually on six challenging mathematical problems.

How did it start?
The genesis of the competition was a mathematics competition between [the US Military Academy] West Point and Harvard University. The story goes: when West Point beat Harvard at football, the head of Harvard commented at least his boys were better at math. West Point disagreed and challenged Harvard to a math competition, which, to Harvard’s chagrin, West Point won. [Laughs]

Oh dear, I can’t imagine Harvard coped well with that.
Well, to be fair, at the time, West Point only included the first two years, and Harvard limited their team to freshman and sophomores as well. Harvard has done quite well over the history of the competition, I might add.

Is it a friendly competition—or daggers drawn—today?
Many enjoy the academic competition and rigor. But it’s essentially designed to require creative insight and is a way for faculty and students to engage in very high-level problem solving.

What’s the process of judging?
The process takes a week to 10 days. All the judges come to Washington D.C., because the interaction between the readers in the same room is very important. Each entry is read by three different readers. It’s an intense process; there are some 4,000 papers to grade.

Who are your esteemed judges?
Our judges include mathematics faculty from around the country, as well as mathematicians from business, industry, and government, including those federal agencies “that have no name.”

Ah, say no more. People with major security clearance, looking for future crack mathematicians to work on matters of national intrigue. Do the judges grade occluded papers to avoid prejudice for one’s alma mater?
Yes. All papers are coded so that no names of institutions or individual participants are shown.

What do the victors win?
Prizes are awarded to the participants with the highest scores and to the departments of mathematics of the five institutions whose teams obtain the highest rankings. The top five teams win $25,000, $20,000, $15,000, $10,000, and $5,000, in that order, with team members receiving $1,000, $800, $600, $400, and $200, respectively.

The top five individual scorers are named Putnam Fellows and awarded $2,500. The school with the first place team receives an award of $25,000. The Elizabeth Putnam Lowell prize is also awarded to a female candidate who demonstrates exemplary talent.

There are many well-known names among the list of former winners, including Nobel laureate Richard Feynman. It must be an important milestone in anyone’s resume.
Certainly so. There are notable folks within the prior list; people are proud of their performance. In fact, when Steve Ballmer was on Conan O’Brien, he boasted about scoring higher than Bill Gates when they were at Harvard.

Although held in the US, the competition is known for its international reach.
The US has a history for being a magnet for talent all over the world. We attracted many mathematicians from the former Eastern Bloc after the fall of the Soviet Union, and we continue to attract graduate students from China and beyond, who want to stay here in the US. The competition definitely reflects that.

How do you think the study of mathematics needs to change as we move towards “the Singularity” and advanced computational AI encroaches on this field? Do you welcome our silicon cousins as future lab partners?
In terms of AI, I see its potential as more than a lab partner. The development of machines themselves is ultimately a mathematical endeavor. Algorithms are mathematics in a very pure form. Do I think mathematics needs to change? Yes, I do. And it has done, and will continue to do so.

If you look at our curriculum guidelines, every decade there’s been various dramatic shifts from the 60s onwards to reflect the changing place of math in both the academy and the workplace. With the surging interest in and application of AI and ML in particular, we will need more people to have enough mathematics understanding to comprehend what’s going on.

Do you ever foresee a non-physical, non-biological [AI] entrant to the Putnam?
[Laughs] Well, that’s certainly an interesting question. I’ll have to think about that more closely. Certainly it would be interesting to see how an AI object performed on the tests. But whether we would include that as a legitimate response, I’m not sure. We require creativity in the papers, which is what people do best. The Putnam isn’t an open book; we don’t publish the past years’ papers and results, so you can’t train an AI neural net in the way IBM Watson was trained to win Jeopardy.

If people want to see who won this year’s prize, where will you post the results?
The winners of this year’s Putnam Competition will be announced on the MAA site on Feb. 25.

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