Revenge of the Nerds

Revenge of the NerdsLast Saturday, as Harvard was battling Columbia in football and Cornell in hockey, a very different showdown took place in Cambridge.

Four hundred high school students from the greater Boston area gathered at MIT, armed with their pencils, for the second annual November competition of the Harvard-MIT Mathematics Tournament.

It isn’t math prodigies with buzzers facing off over trig identities, as the movies would have you think. The tournament consisted mainly of long tests—the General Test was 100 minutes long—that were taken individually and in groups.

After lunch, there were mini-events such as “Buzz,” “Rubik’s Cubes,” “DinoParmFish” and “Set,” which incorporated math in more creative ways. The tournament ended with the “Guts” round, which involved students running around and doing problems in groups of four to six.

According to Winston H. Luo ’12, one of the tournament’s directors, the goal is for the participants to have fun, but the actual problems, which are written by Harvard and MIT students, are serious business.

“I would give you an example, but the contest is in a few days, so I can’t quite do that,” he said on Wednesday.

But don’t expect to see a crowd of Jimmy Neutrons. In reality, according to Arvind Thiagarajan, MIT freshman and “Problem Czar” (the title reflects the monstrous task of compiling and editing all the problems), there’s more to these kids than just numbers.

“They tend to be really math-y and eccentric,” said Thiagarajan.

Take Seth Neel, for example. The high school junior from Rhode Island started doing sprints to prepare for the tournament.

“I got in physical shape. Body before mind,” he said. Neel described himself as an “aspiring rap artist,” before quickly taking it back. “Math is my passion,” he astutely said.

While they might be able to determine obscure probabilities and recite formulas backwards, these whizzes know how to lighten up.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

CORRECTION: June 2, 2010

An earlier version of the Nov. 12 FM article "Revenge of the Nerds" incorrectly referred to Seth Neel as a junior at MIT. In fact, he is a junior in high school.