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MIT math team wins Putnam

For the second year in a row, the MIT math team has finished first in the celebrated William Lowell Putnam intercollegiate mathematics competition.

Of the close to 4,000 college students from across the country and Canada who took the six-hour test, three of the top five students came from MIT. Two of the three were on the math team. With more than 100 student test-takers, MIT sent more students than any other of the 515 colleges and universities that competed.

"We knew we had a very strong team," said co-coach Richard Stanley, the Norman Levinson Professor of Applied Mathematics. The three-person team, composed of senior mathematics majors Reid Barton and Emanuel Stoica and junior mathematics major Daniel Kane, had two of the top five finishes. The third MIT student, junior civil engineering major Vladimir Barzov, was not on the team. Both Kane and Barton have been part of the team in each of their years at MIT, Stanley said.

The annual 12-question test, first administered in 1938, is typically given on the first Saturday in December and the results are announced toward the end of March. There are two three-hour sections, one in the morning and one in the afternoon.

More than 3,500 students from the United States and Canada take the test, tackling "atypical" questions in the field of mathematics. The questions do not ask students to know much more than calculus, algebra or what Stanley calls, "sophomore math." However, the problems themselves are far from simple. "The problems do require original thoughts or ideas. There is no formula learned in a class that they can plug in," Stanley said.

The test is so difficult that many of the tests are returned to Putnam graders blank. Worth a total of 120 points, the median score on the exam was a 0 this year, said Stanley. The highest score was 109.

The winning team's score is a compilation of the scores of the three members. The team members are generally chosen based on each student's score in previous years, said Stanley, although there have been exceptions. Barton, for example, first took the test as a freshman. Since then, he has finished in the top five each year. "We do typically have a very strong team," Stanley said.

Though there is a freshman seminar preparation course offered during the fall semester, students usually opt to prepare on their own, Stanley said. "There really is not much time to prepare," he said.

The MIT Department of Mathematics will receive an award of $25,000, and each team member will receive $1,000. Also, the students who made it into the top five will each receive $2,500. "We are quite pleased," Stanley said.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on April 13, 2005 (download PDF).

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