Even before they came to Washington, D.C., on June 3 to reap the rewards of their stellar performance, the 12 winners of the 42nd United States of America Mathematical Olympiad (USAMO) had proven their ability to weather long days. They've been known, after all, to spend 4.5 hours one afternoon puzzling over challenging math problems—problems about circumcircles and digit occurrences in base ten—only to come back and repeat the exercise the next day.
The endurance developed through such marathon tests of mathematical prowess served the USAMO winners well in the nation's capital, where a full schedule of events awaited them.
The morning welcome, held in the MAA Carriage House, included a recap by MAA American Mathematics Competitions (AMC) director Steven Dunbar of a year in which United States teams took first place honors in both the Romanian Master of Mathematics and the European Girls Math Olympiad.
David Patrick from program sponsor Art of Problem Solving (AoPS) characterized the audience of USAMO winners and their guests as "one of the few rooms in the country where almost everyone" is familiar with what AoPS does for its online community of high-performing middle and high school math students. Pi Mu Epsilon president Eve Torrence inducted the winners into the mathematics honor society, and MAA mathematician in residence James Tanton engaged all ages with his presentation "Twisted Topological Conundrums," which transformed the Carriage House into a web of yellow yarn and suspended coffee cups.
Five hours after they departed MAA headquarters, arms full of sponsor swag, for an afternoon on the town, the "fabulous 12" (as Tanton dubbed them) reconvened at the United States Department of State for an awards ceremony and dinner. IDs checked and patent shoes shining, the winners were escorted to the Dean Acheson Auditorium, where, as parents and sponsors looked on, MAA president Robert Devaney hung medals around their necks.
Devaney delivered the Olympiad Address, titled "Chaos Games and Fractal Movies," and then the party started.
En route to the Benjamin Franklin State Dining Room, an ornate affair of brocade tablecloths, crystal chandeliers, and Corinthian columns crusted in gold leaf, winners, guests, and table sponsors passed through the diplomatic reception rooms, which brim with artifacts from the nation's early history. The desk where Thomas Jefferson signed the Treaty of Paris. A grandfather clock with a human likeness above the clock face, eyes shifting ceaselessly back and forth in the place of a pendulum.
The Phillips Exeter contingent—four winners plus coach Zuming Feng—gathered in front of a stone fireplace for a group photograph.
Po-Shen Loh, assistant academic director of the Mathematical Olympiad Summer Program, found the venue impressive. "This is not second place at all, is it?" he said.
In the dining room, attendees sipped soup shots of chilled asparagus bisque and nibbled tomato tarts tatin as John P. Holdren, Director of White House Science and Technology Policy, took the microphone. Confessing that the letter entrusted to him by President Obama had gone missing in the shuffle of security, Holdren told the crowd that there is "no better preparation for excelling across a wide variety of fields...than excellence in mathematics."
After dinner and the presentation of the Samuel L. Greitzer/Murray S. Klamkin Award for Mathematical Excellence, the Robert P. Balles U.S.A. Mathematical Olympiad Prize, and the Akamai Foundation Scholarship Awards, the 2013 USAMO adventure ended much as it began, with a math problem.
Andy Niedermaier of Jane Street Capital gave the winners two minutes to work out on the nine square inches of their place cards as tight a range as they could containing the value of the integral from zero to 1,000 of x raised to the power of sin x, dx.
The fabulous 12 applied themselves to the puzzle, borrowed writing implements scribbling, Niedermaier's continued remarks ignored.
"Gosh, how can I..." David Stoner mumbled under his breath, in his element again at last. —Katharine Merow
The USAMO is the pinnacle event in the sequence of increasingly challenging mathematical contests administered by the MAA's American Mathematics Competitions program. It serves to indicate the talent of those who may become leaders in the mathematical sciences of the next generation. More than 220,000 worldwide took the first contest (AMC 10 and/or AMC 12). More than 10,000 were invited to compete in the second contest, the American Invitational Mathematics Examination (AIME), and just 275 of these participants made it to the highly selective and prestigious USAMO.
The mission of the MAA's American Mathematics Competitions is to increase interest in mathematics and to develop problem solving through a fun competition. Teachers and schools benefit from the chance to challenge students with interesting mathematical questions that are aligned with curriculum standards at all levels of difficulty. In addition, students gain the opportunity to learn and achieve through competition with students in their school and around the world.
The MAA would like to thank the organizations that sponsor the USAMO and MOSP programs, including: Akamai Foundation, D. E. Shaw & Co., Art of Problem Solving, Jane Street Capital, Math for America, Academy of Applied Science, American Mathematical Society, American Statistical Association, Casualty Actuarial Society, Math Training Center, American Mathematical Association of Two-Year Colleges, Awesome Math, Conference Board of the Mathematical Sciences, Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics , Mu Alpha Theta, IDEA Math, Pi Mu Epsilon, and Robert Balles.