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MIT Takes First Place At Putnam Math Test

By Jenny Zhang


MIT has won the 2003, 64th annual William Lowell Putnam Math Competition for the first time since 1979. The team members, selected by Professors of Mathematics Hartley Rogers Jr. and Richard P. Stanley, are Reid W. Barton ’05, Daniel M. Kane ’07, and Yevgeny K. Zaytman ’05. Team placement in the competition is based on the ranks of the team members’ scores. Barton and Kane were among the top five highest ranking individuals, who are named Putnam Fellows.

The six hour, twelve problem exam takes place the first Saturday of each December, and is open to any full-time undergraduate student in the United States and Canada. Harvard University, Duke University, California Institute of Technology, and Harvey Mudd College round out the top five teams.

Professors select team

Rogers and Stanley have selected the Putnam team for many years. “I’d been involved with it for the last fifteen years,” Rogers said. The first approximation, he said, is “to take the three people who scored the highest the previous year,” but this is not the only criterion.

The professors teach a freshman problem solving seminar (18.S34), which exposes students to problems similar to those on the Putnam exam. One of the members of the 2003 team, Kane, had participated in the seminar last fall. Rogers noticed that he was “very good” and they decided to choose him although they have “very rarely put a freshman on the team.”

Rogers said that winning also “depends on a little bit of luck,” because “with the teams at the top, it’s always been close.” In addition, he said, stage fright and fatigue can also come into the picture, making the results of the competition unpredictable.

Rogers said that he is “very pleased” with MIT’s win but that since MIT had come in second many times, they “knew that it had to happen.”

MIT had a total of 120 participants, with 19 in the top 70, according to Rogers. An interesting outcome this year, he said, was that the number of combined of MIT and Harvard students makes up more than half of the top 70 performers on the exam. “It just indicates the concentration of talent at MIT and Harvard,” he said.

Rogers said that in the recent past he and Stanley have not held any structured preparation prior to the test.

18.034 is “probably reasonable preparation,” Kane said, referring to the differential equations class. He said that his experience in high school math competitions and the math olympiad were useful.

Awards, celebration to come

Rogers said that a celebration would probably be held by the Putnam organizers after spring break. “In the past they have had a dinner for the team at a club in Boston,” he said.

The MIT math department will be awarded $25,000, and each team member will receive $1000. In addition, Barton and Kane will receive $2500 as Putnam Fellows.