- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 15, 2004


By Steve Olson

Houghton Mifflin, $24, 224 pages


It is no accident that mathematics is unpopular here in the United States, where the subject is taught in the most lifeless way, and where mathematicians are widely seen as being either madmen or misfits. “Math was my worst subject” is practically a national saying.

Bad as this state of affairs may seem, there is little chance that those who fared poorly at math in school will ever pick up an algebra textbook, a guide to problem-solving, or a general history of math. It is simply taken for granted that one is either good at math or bad at math, and whether or not this assumption is true to begin with, it becomes true because people believe it.

In “Count Down,” the popular science writer Steve Olson (author of “Mapping Human History,” 2002) has found an attraction — a sideshow, as it were — to draw the reluctant American public to math.

This is the International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO), which pits the best young problem-solvers from around the world against each other, competing for a gold, silver, or bronze medal by attempting to solve extremely complex problems under a strict time limit. The IMO is generally considered the world’s most challenging math competition.

Mr. Olson’s story is of the six American kids who competed at the 2001 olympiad, held at George Mason University in northern Virginia. These kids, selected from a pool of 500,000 gifted math students nationwide, are humorously called “mathletes,” since they use their brains in the exhausting way that body-builders or sprinters use their muscles.

By drawing readers into the world of these competitive yet playful olympians, Mr. Olson hopes incidentally to show how creative, exciting, and aesthetically pleasing the practice of math is; to encourage those frightened by math; and to challenge America’s teachers, who tend to regard math simply as a business of calculating figures.

All this, which can more or less be grasped from a brief look at the dust jacket of the book, seems not only high-minded but intriguing. Potential readers are led to expect fascinating glimpses into the minds of these six prodigies, detailed looks at their study habits, their lifestyles, and their attitudes toward math. One might also expect that Mr. Olson’s story will yield some wonderful insight into the substance of mathematical talent.

But “Count Down” will sorely disappoint readers with such hopes, for it does not, in fact, focus at length on the olympians. The book is a mere 200 pages long (not counting the appendix) but probably less than a third of it deals with the actual story of the olympians in their pursuit of glory.

The bulk of the book is, depressingly, spent on abstraction: naive lectures on the nature of genius; reflections on gender and youth; digressions on the history of mathematics; discussions of the relative merits of competition.

These flights into the abstract, earnest and well-meaning though they are, accomplish very little, being much too insubstantial to settle any intellectual debate.

Worse, they distract us from the story of the olympians, which is supposed to be at the heart of the book.

But if “Count Down” skimps on the story, it was not for lack of one. The IMO is a fascinating event, and the 2001 contest should have provided enough material to set up at least a few novels and a half-dozen documentaries.

Nearly 500 kids from 83 countries competed, working on problems that many professional mathematicians would not be able to solve. And when they were not doing math, they were playing card games, video games, frisbee, soccer, the piano; they were chatting, eating, or watching movies together. In short, the contest combined the diversity of the United Nations and the brain power of 10 think tanks all under the same roof.

Why, then, did Mr. Olson choose to spend so little time on the story, and so much time on abstraction? Perhaps the answer is that he wanted to focus on the big questions, but it is more likely that the abstract passages are a pretty tissue, meant to cover the fact that the author simply did not pursue any one story doggedly enough.

At the 2001 IMO, the American team tied for second place with Russia behind a strong Chinese team. (In part because of our large immigrant population, the United States has tended to compete respectably at olympiads, even against the Eastern European and Asian countries, which have very rich mathematical traditions.)

Putting aside the battle of nations, the real story of the 2001 contest was that of Reid Barton, the American olympian who became the first person ever to win four straight gold medals in four competitions. But Mr. Olson chose not to follow Mr. Barton’s story very closely.

Indeed, instead of drawing general lessons from a close study of the kids, he uses the kids to demonstrate general ideas that he seems to have arrived at beforehand. This was a backward approach.

Still, there are moments in “Count Down” when one does get a small glimpse into the brilliance of these young mathematicians. For instance, at their training camp, Mr. Olson shows us the animated way the kids play variations of chess (suicide, atomic, toroidal, proxy, and bughouse), and the reader sees how the kids seem to thrive under the greatest intellectual pressure.

The book also includes a strong argument for the importance of mathematics, for the necessity of teaching math in a way that emphasizes creativity and daring, and the elegance and beauty of the subject. But that is, unfortunately, all the reader comes away with for the admission price of $24.

Stephen Barbara is a writer in Hoboken, N.J. He has written for the Wall Street Journal and other publications.

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