It’s not the easiest to explain to my non-math major friends. “What am I doing this Saturday? Well, I’m getting up at 8 a.m. so I can take a six hour long exam, one on which there is a good chance I will get an abysmally low score, for fun. Hey, at least we get to go to the lunch buffet at Gateway to India in between the two halves!”
There you have the Putnam Mathematical Competition. I came, I sat, I conquered, and by conquered I mean that I had way more fun than I thought I would. What’s not fun about having six hours to sit down, look at twelve puzzles, choose a few of them to attempt, and mess around with those until you figure out the trick that makes it possible to solve? For instance, taking an icosahedron (you can look it up if you’re interested), numbering the sides with nonnegative integers that add up to 39, and showing that it is impossible to have such a numbering without causing two sides with the same vertex to have the same number. This was the first problem in the first set, so we got to talk about it over lunch. Rob Beezer is the professor who leads the Putnam Seminar, a weekly gathering to discuss problems from Putnams past, and so he was proctoring the exam for us and doing the problems right along with us. As we compared what we had done (and how long it took each of us to realize that the icosahedron appears in the logo for the Mathematical Association of America, and thus was conveniently pictured at the top of the page), Beezer told us how he’d used graph theory, taking the dual of the graph of the icosahedron. To be honest, I think my solution was a lot more straightforward! We’ll see if it was correct or not when we get our scores back.
Then reading period and finals week happened. My most difficult exam (abstract algebra) was on Monday morning at 8, so at least I got that over with right away! My professor brought us chocolate, and luckily for me he also likes the super dark stuff so that is what was provided us. 85%! My favorite. Almost as good as the time that my IPE professor brought in what I think were pork skewers and a dipping sauce to our final. The sauce turned out to contain a LOT of horseradish, and I had a coughing fit and runny nose in the middle of the test, but I’m willing to pay that price for delicious treats.