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.

Hanging from his belt is a black two-by-three inch beeper given to him by the Red Cross. Apparently, when Kedlaya isn't tackling the latest math problem, he's driving an ambulance-like vehicle around Boston, helping disaster victims with housing, food, and first aid. As director of disaster services for Friends of the Red Cross, Kedlaya manages 20 Harvard students, dispatching them to fires where people are in need of help. He tells me that he last received a call on his beeper just 10 minutes ago.

Music seems to be his other passion. Kedlaya has played violin in the Toscanini Chamber Orchestra and sung with the Harvard-Radcliffe Chorus and the Glee Club. One of his favorite activities this year was learning Indian film songs for his Hindu class. And he fondly recalls the spring that he sang Elvis songs with a bunch of Hungarians in a karaoke bar in Budapest. Of course, he was in Budapest for a math program.

The beeper goes off. Kedlaya squelches it and looks down at the digital display. "A fire in Quincy," he says. My eyes light up in alarm. "Quincy, Mass., not Quincy House," he reassures me. We continue.

Born in Washington, D.C., Kedlaya now resides in Silver Spring, Maryland. His family does not have the technical background one might expect: His father is a photographer, his mother a homemaker. Kedlaya has one sister, Kishori, a first-year at Harvard who will probably concentrate in physics and philosophy.

I ask him how he first became interested in the world of mathematics. He pauses to reflect. Then he begins rocking back and forth in his chair like a bobbing pigeon. It is one of Kedlaya's tell-tale tics, as if the excess energy from his brain is powering the rest of his body.

"I must have read some interesting books as a child," he says finally. "I guess it started with being quick with arithmetic. I was good at it somehow; I guess that helps."

At the suggestion of one of his teachers, who recognized his talent, Kedlaya entered his first math contest in fifth grade, a Maryland state competition meant for eight graders.

"I had no idea that there was competitive math like the soccer team. I had no idea that there was something like the math team," he says.

Thus began his illustrious career in mathematics. His 50-page thesis this year was titled "Compex Multiplication and Explicit Class Field Theory." I don't even ask him to attempt to explain it.

Next year, Kedlaya will begin studying for a Ph.D. in mathematics at Princeton. In the long run, he says, he may enter academia ("hide in the ivory tower and avoid reality"), conduct research for a private company, or work for the "government." He refuses to elaborate further on the last point.

"If I told you, I would have to kill you and all of your readers," he jokes.

In the end, math has even framed the way in which he reflects upon his four years at Harvard. On his way back from the Champagne Brunch, Kedlaya says he had a striking thought.

"During freshman year, everyone was asking each other, 'Where are you from?' Now the question is 'Where are you going?' It seems oddly poignant and symmetric," remarks Kedlaya. "I'm a mathematician and I like symmetry, so that made an impression on me."

The weekend following our interview, Kedlaya flew to Memphis, Tennessee to help grade the U.S. Math Olympiad--the third in a series of tests begun by several hundred thousand high school students across the country. Undoubtedly, many of them will have dreams of becoming just as "statistically significant" as he.CrimsonJohn C. Mitchell