Duke claims another top ten finish in North America’s most prestigious math competition
DURHAM, N.C. — The Blue Devils may have lost in the Sweet 16 during March Madness 2016, but a Duke team crushed more than 500 other schools in the NCAA tournament of the math world, known by mathletes as the Putnam, claiming a top ten finish for the 22nd time since 1990.
Alex Milu ’16, Tony Qiao ’17, Trung Can ’18 and Feng Gui ’18 scored higher than 90 percent of the 4,275 undergraduates who competed in this year’s event. More than a dozen other Duke students also competed in this year’s contest. The results of the 76th annual competition were announced this month.
Named after an 1882 Harvard graduate, the William Lowell Putnam Mathematical Competition is the most prestigious college-level math contest you have probably never heard of.
Every year on the first Saturday in December, thousands of students from across the U.S. and Canada compete in a grueling six-hour exam to see who can be the Steph Curry of math.
Armed with nothing more than pencil and paper, their task is to solve 12 brain bending math problems. No laptops, no course notes.
“These are not problems that textbook learning will help you much with,” said associate professor of mathematics David Kraines, who has coached Duke’s Putnam teams for much of the past 25 years.
“Knowing anything beyond calculus or linear algebra is really not a help,” Kraines said. Instead, coming up with solutions requires an “ability to think abstractly and outside the box.”
“We have A+ students who don’t do well at all in this competition, and others who don’t get great grades for one reason or another, and who become Putnam stars,” Kraines said.
“You have to think more creatively than you do in class,” said Feng Gui, who finished among the top 8 percent and competed in similar competitions as a high school student in China.
One question gave the sequence of numbers 6,16,27,36…, and asked the competitor to prove or disprove that there is some number in the sequence whose base 10 representation ends with 2015.
“Most of the questions don’t have numerical answers,” Kraines said. “They say ‘prove this,’ or ‘show that.’ To do well you have to justify your solution mathematically.”
A perfect score on the 12-question test is 120 points, but the grading is so tough that almost two thirds of this year’s Putnam contestants got zero points. Only one in five contestants correctly solved even one problem.
“It was a little tougher than usual,” said Alex Milu of Bucharest, Romania, a Karsh Scholar who took the Putnam for the fourth time this year and was named Honorable Mention for scoring in the top two percent, or 54th out of 4,275 students.
For Trung Can, a former gold medalist from Vietnam in the annual International Math Olympiad (IMO), the world math championship for high schoolers, math competitions like the Putnam are an opportunity to “meet people who share the same passion. Those friendships can last a lifetime,” said Can, who will help lead a training camp for high school students in Vietnam this July.
The Blue Devils competed sporadically in the Putnam in the 1970s and 80s, but Duke’s first top ten win was in 1990, when a three-person Duke team finished in second place behind Harvard.
That year, Kraines persuaded the department to start offering a half-credit problem-solving seminar in the fall to prepare students for the competition. Each week they focus on a different topic. One week it might be number theory, the next week geometry or combinatorics the week after that. “We entice them with pizza,” Kraines said.
Around the same time, Duke also started making a concerted effort to attract top math students the same way college sports recruiters attract basketball stars.
“I was able to get on the scholarship committee and we started actively recruiting,” Kraines said. “It worked. We got some fantastic kids.”
What followed was a 15-year run of near-continuous top three finishes. Since 1990, Duke Putnam teams have ranked No. 1 in North America three times, No. 2 twice, and No. 3 six times.
Duke’s Putnam champs don’t burn benches to mark major victories, but they do celebrate in other ways.
Hanging proudly in the math department lounge are some of the retired jerseys of the five Duke students who have placed among the top five highest-ranking individual finishers, known as “Putnam Fellows,” a distinction shared by several Fields Medal winners and Nobel laureates in physics.
The No. 2 jersey of 2002 Putnam winner Melanie Wood is among them, a reminder of the last time a Duke student finished among the top five individual spots.
A scrapbook in Kraines’ office contains dozens of newspaper clippings and other keepsakes from Duke’s earliest wins, including a congratulatory letter from former NC Governor Jim Hunt.
Kraines plans to retire from teaching next year after 45 years at Duke, but this won’t be his last Putnam. “It’s been a very good experience. I don’t plan to leave,” Kraines said.
Post by Robin A. Smith