Breaking the Curve

Kiran S. Kedlaya

"I'm Statistically Significant." The words are emblazoned in blue letters across the front of his white T-shirt. They are the first things I see when Kiran S. Kedlaya '96 opens the door of Quincy 321 to greet me. The shirt is his favorite.

"It's a very nice self-affirmation," he later says. "It sort of says, 'I'm statistically significant, and darn it, I matter.'"

Statistically significant indeed.

I had always wanted a chance to speak with this demigod of the mathematics world. At age 21, Kedlaya is considered by many to be the best college-age student in math in the United States.

As a high school sophomore, he won first place in the most prestigious math competition in the country--the United States Math Olympiad. That same summer he represented the U.S. in international competition in Beijing. Now he spends his summers helping to train future math Olympians at a special camp in Nebraska.

Kedlaya, a math and physics concentrator, already has three journal publications to his credit, in subjects ranging from number theory to combinatorics, and another publication is pending. For the past three years, he has placed among the top five in the William Lowell Putnam competition--a grueling day-long national exam in which contestants must answer twelve questions in six hours. Out of a maximum score of 120, the mode score for the exam is 0, the median 1.

And his reputation is not limited to this continent alone. On a visit to his family's hometown in southern India seven years ago, he was mobbed by throngs of elementary school students wanting his autograph. "It was cute," he says.

I first learned about Kedlaya from my first-year roommate Hank Chien, another member of the math elite subculture. My roommate had placed twelfth in the U.S. Math Olympaid, so he always had stories about what life was like on the math competition circuit. ARML, AHSME, AIME, USAMO, MOP--I was buried in math acronyms during my first year at Harvard. Naturally, I quickly learned the names of the legends in the math community, most of whom were at Harvard--Lenny Ng, Sergey Levin, Manjul Bhargava.

Kedlaya was always at the top of the list. As a first-year, if you were stuck on a proof for Math 21a, you called Kedlaya, who was guaranteed to solve the problem in 30 seconds flat.

After inviting me into his domain, Kedlaya drops onto the cushion of his wooden chair, casually draping his arm around the chair. He is barefoot, wearing a T-shirt and jeans. A pair of large round dark-rimmed glasses sits on his face, right below the broad expanse of his forehead. Short curly dark hair hugs tightly to his bulbous head. The quintessential mathematician.

Behind him is a desk with a Power Mac. On the wall behind hang various posters--a Glee Club advertisement for Brahms' Requiem, a print from the Museum of Fine Arts, a painting of a ballerina by Degas.

Two board games--Scrabble and Trivial Pursuit--sit stacked on a brown wooden bookshelf in the upper corner of the room, their box covers tattered from frequent use. Kedlaya says he also enjoys chess and bridge, but doesn't find much time to play.

But even his wall decorations betray his true love. Scrolled across the back of his room is a poster depicting a graph resembling the output from a seismograph. "It's the Riemann zeta function on the critical line," says Kedlaya. Apparently, solving a problem relating to the function is tantamount in prestige to proving Fermat's Last Theorem.

A call interrupts the interview. It's someone from the Math department telling Kedlaya that a $1,500 prize check is waiting for him at the math office from the Putnam competition. Apparently, being good at math can be profitable as well.

But Kedlaya does not live for math alone.