MIT People Are Really Good At Math

I rarely read physical magazines anymore. I only read in the bathroom and most are things I forget to unsubscribe to or that Amy gives me.

Today, I finished the most recent MIT Technology Review where I was reminded about the amazing MIT Science Fiction Society. As a sci-fi nut, I realized I’d screwed up by not having a lifetime membership. So, I’m now trying to figure out where to send my $260 to be a lifer.

As I was reading the other MIT thingy I get regularly (the MIT Science News and Events) I saw a mindblowing stat from the most recent Putnam Competition (the 74th). MIT took four of the top five places, won the team competition, and had 43% of the top 81 scores (depending on the rounding, that’s either 34 of 81 or 35 of 81.) Either way, it’s nuts.

When I was a freshman, I thought I was hot shit at math. I was the star of my high school Mu Alpha Theta team and as a senior had an unexpected first place finish in a Rice University national competition for Algebra. I was pretty damn good in the calculator competitions on my TI-58C. Yes, I was a nerd then, and I’m still a nerd now.

While I got an 800 on the math SAT, I booted all the AP tests except Biology (to place out at MIT you need to get a 5) – I can’t remember what I did the night before the tests but it clearly wasn’t something that I should have been doing if I wanted to pass them.

So, when I got to MIT, I took 18.011, which was the “advanced first calculus course.” It was straightforward. I then took 18.021 (“advanced second calculus course.”) It was less straightforward. If I had placed out on the Math AP test, I would have taken 18.02 and 18.03 instead. So I felt a little less like hot shit.

My friend (and future business partner Dave Jilk) knew I liked math so he encouraged me to take a course called 18.701: Algebra. I figured “Algebra – I’ve got that.” I don’t know if Dave was serious or just fucking with me, but when I got a 12 on my first test I knew I was fucked. I dropped the class shortly thereafter. Dave, of course, got an A in that one. He’s much better at math than I am.

While I ended up being “fair” at math by MIT standards, I developed a weird savant like numeric skill. I can remember crazy amounts of number and data pairs. I can also do a lot of math in my head, although I’m often off by an order of magnitude, which of course either matters a lot or is easy to adjust when you realize it.

Mitchell M. Lee, Zipei Nie, Bobby Shen, and David Yang – y’all are math studs. Well done representing the Beavers in the 2014 Putnam.

  • DaveJ

    And I, in turn, had opted not to major in physics after I saw how limited my math abilities were compared to, say, Andy Bernoff. Amazing to experience the normal distribution so viscerally.

    • Yup. You show up there being the smartest at most things in your high school. You quickly realize that “smartest” and “most talented” mean almost nothing at MIT.

      • Someone I know extremely well just interviewed at a company with the CTO. He has a Ph.D in CS from MIT. But more disturbingly he won the ACM World Programming Contest and still judges it. Intimidating!?

  • Yay drop day.

    • I always loved that drop date was like 67% of the way through the semester. I always took advantage of that…

  • The magazine I have to read hardcopy that I wish I could get on my Kindle is the Harvard Divinity Bulletin. Could be the best rag I’ve ever read.

  • It is a sad truth but if you want to compete at the elite level of anything ‘if at first you can’t succeed, give up.’

  • very similar to my MIT experience. i placed out of 18.01 and started with 18.02 and got a zero on my first test. i didn’t even understand the questions! i got through that class, thank god for pass fail!, but i was not anywhere near the top math students in my class. i did take a statistics course at MIT which i loved and did great at. and i’ve used stats way more than calculus in my career

    • I struggled with 6.041 (probably what you took) but nailed 15.075, demonstrating that Course 15 courses are easier than Course 6 courses.
      My first “I don’t understand the questions” experience happened on my first 8.01 test. I thought I was good at Physics. I didn’t even understand the questions! I got a 20 on it. I don’t know what you did when you got the 0, but when I got the 20, I went to my room in my frat, locked the door, and cried for a hour. Deep, deep self-doubt that I was in the right place. It wasn’t until the next class that I learned that class average was a 32, so I passed, even with a 20.

      I echo “thank god for pass/fail.”

      • i went to see a sophomore in my fraternity named Hal Stern for some advice. he told me what to do to fix it (basically study more and ask the TA to take the test over). he taught me more math my freshman year than anyone in the faculty.

        Hal now runs the Bren School of Information and Computer Science at UC Irvine and this is how I paid him back

        • Andrew Kennedy

          this is great

  • Great story. I share your ability to memorize data, and I’m very good at math, which makes it even more humbling when I meet people who are better at it than I.

    I’m working on catching up to your reading skills. Being born on Earth puts me at a disadvantage. 🙂

    • The trick to reading faster is practice! And special magic skills.

  • Why do the MIT classes have such crazy long numerical tags – 6.041 and 15.075? What’s the logic to them?

    • Here’s a pretty good link to HOW it works.

      As to WHY, try for a taste of the bizarreness of it all.

      Oh – and add in some more letters –

      • Holy crap.

        I thought this was pretty funny “The numbers are pretty arbitrary. I would note, however, that doesn’t mean they’re stupid — after all, the actual words given to nouns in spoken languages are also a matter of historical contingency and arbitrary assignment (we call it “biology” because the ancient Greeks used the root “bio” to refer to living things, but they could just as easily have used something else).”

        I guess if I was living prior to the ancient greeks I would be as confused if someone used the term ‘biology’ as if they just called it ‘7’ or whatever number it is.

        This is arcane shit, let’s be honest. But if it bonds you guys – good luck to you 🙂

  • Jürgen Osterberg

    Do you still have your 58C, Brad? Loved my HP-41C, which I bought in 1980. It served me well while studying Astrophyics. And it still works and has its place on my desk these days.

    • My parents might still have it at their house somewhere. I’ve long lost track of it.

  • Brad, I LOVE this post – it touches on several things dear to me.

    It relates to grades and their perceived worth. A blog post I wrote just got picked up by HuffPo about getting a 98 on a math exam and having my father crawl all over the 2 points I lost. Those 2 points became symbolic of knowing what my future work would be, why, and feeling great about “obsessing” over making it my own.

    The deception of outdoing a small pond and finding yourself in a bigger one with different class of skill has happened to me many times. The math I had did not take me through physics at Exeter and I got seriously beat up. Being a top artist at Exeter didn’t mean squat at RISD. But learning why you are not top is more interesting when it ignores ego and goes straight to learning how your own brain works.

    After RISD I wanted to go to MIT desperately, but did not have the chops. Since then MIT has been like mental catnip for me. I was there this fall and we rocked some gamers at the media lab with our games.

    In time it all works out right? Live the question.

    • Great line: “Live the question” – I”m all in on that with you…

      • Jerry made my question into a long meditation. And witnessed a lot of the solving, though I still have a challenge from him hanging out there. I place my bets I will win it, though he is skeptical I can boil the ocean (or for that matter that anyone can). But hey, that’s why we obsess no?

        Curious, if you read the piece, do you have 2 points you’re chasing?

  • R. Narayan Chowdhury

    Problems and solutions from prior Putnams.

    I discovered that the competition was initially setup between Harvard and West Point.

  • High school math has basically nothing to do with all but the most basic college math. In high school, it’s mostly about learning and applying rules. You’re basically a computer. In college, after your first year, you get to do what real mathematicians do: think through proofs and write proofs. Lots of kids find out they are hot shots at one but hopeless at the other. (Or get bored with one and never get to the other) You should read Lockhart’s Lament if you are interested in math education. It’s brilliant.

    • Oh, also, my school gave you a plaque in the math department if you got even a single point on Putnam. I walked in the test, read through the questions immediately intuited the answer to one then realized I understood none of the other questions. I also couldn’t for the life of me prove my answer. So I left and got my name on a plaque in the department from which I ended up NOT getting my degree. I still find that fact entertaining.

    • I actually had a pretty good set of math teachers in high school, especially AP Calc, so I’m not sure I agree with the generic statement. But there’s no question that AP Calc is like “super basic beginner math.”

      • There are of course exceptions. 🙂

        But it’s less that Calc is super beginning math and more that AP Calc teaches answers without questions (assuming IB and AP Calc are similar). My discrete math course was super beginning math, but it was all about theorems and proofs. I took IB Calc and theorems and proofs were very rare. There isn’t much good reason for that apart from the fact that proofs aren’t taught in school prior.

        If it was up to me, we would teach 2 math courses. One would be about basic arithmetic and would end after elementary school. The other would start with set theory, move to number theory and progress to calculus and real analysis by the end of high school. That second course would give you a much better indication of whether you want to do math in college or not.