Tuesday, April 07, 2009


Science Talent Search

About a month ago, the winners were announced for the 2009 Intel Science Talent Search. As is usual, several of the top-40 finalists (four, this year, 10%) came from a dueling pair of New York City schools, Stuyvesant High School and Bronx High School of Science. This year, they tied with two each.

1974 Westinghouse Science Talent Search Honors Group booklet coverI have a personal interest in this, because when I was a high-school senior — 35 years ago, at age 16 — I submitted an abstract-mathematics paper for the 1974 competition, then the Westinghouse Science Talent Search. I was thrilled that it made the semifinals (top 300 papers), and only somewhat disappointed that it didn’t get into the finals (top 40). Two of my classmates at Nova High School in Davie, Florida, also made it into the top 300 “Honors Group”: Jim Azar (now deceased), “Unique Quadrant Graphs and Theoretical Postulates Concerning Psychological Mathematization”; and Steve Peretz, “Aerodynamic Stability Induced by Gyration”. There were at least three other papers submitted that year from Nova, a school that strongly emphasized math and science.

As it turns out, in a search last week for something else, through some old things, I unearthed a photocopy of my paper — perhaps the only extant copy — along with related memorabilia (congratulatory letters from my senators and congressman, and such). I scanned the copy and turned it into a PDF: A Characterization of Divisible Abelian Groups.

The scan brings us back to the technology of the time. The paper was typed on an old, manual typewriter, complete with irregular lines of letters (the hammers didn’t line up perfectly; a higher quality machine would have done better). I had to leave space to hand-write the mathematical symbols. At the top of page 3, I left in a hand-written correction, not wanting to re-type the whole page. And, of course, the idea that one might easily archive this stuff in a PDF file (which I could download to my BlackBerry and read, if I should want to) was unimaginable science fiction in 1974.

The paper itself is something I’m still proud of (obviously; I’m writing about it now), but in retrospect I’m a little surprised that it made the semifinals. It’s not new work. It’s original work of mine, but I’d call it my own survey of existing work. I didn’t prove any theorems that hadn’t already been proved. I didn’t have any new ideas that hadn’t already been published.

On the other hand, I was a 16-year-old doing graduate-level mathematics. And the Science Talent Search people were probably looking for a few mathematics papers to include in what’s mostly slanted toward the hard sciences.

I also have to thank my high school math teacher, Larry Insel, who taught me so excellently, who pushed me to get my paper done and entered, and who helped steer my education in many ways. He always humbly said that it was all me, but I wouldn’t have gone where I’d gone without him. I was very pleased when, last summer, Mr Insel found me online and got in touch with me again.

I hope my readers will forgive this self-indulgent post. Now go read the stuff about this year’s finalists and winners, some of whom will be making scientific breakthroughs 15 or 20 or 30 years from now. And thank their Mr Insels for helping them along.


May said...

Very good!
Did you pursue mathematical studies later?

Barry Leiba said...

I majored in math for my undergraduate degree, specializing in topology. I went into computers from there, and haven't done anything with my math degree since (my graduate degree is in computer science).

May said...

Topology! You bring me back in time to the exam of Mathematical Analysis II in which one of the problems concerned topology...luckily I solved all the other ones and passed the exam (I had never been to class, though).

Ross Patterson said...


Don't be too hard on yourself. Westinghouse semi-finalist is a big deal, not to be sneezed at. And being squeezed out by the head of the Human Genome Project and a founder of Akamai isn't bad either.

Ross (Stuyvesant '76)
P.S. Obligatory math geek joke: "What's purple and associates? An abelian grape!"