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MIT wins Putnam math competition by Matt McGann '00

The results are out, and for the second consecutive year, MIT has won the William Lowell Putnam Competition, perhaps the most prestigious undergraduate mathematics competition in North America. Of the top 5 students (“Putnam Fellows”), three were from MIT: Reid Barton (senior, Mathematics), Daniel Kane (sophomore-junior, Mathematics), and Vladimir Barzov (junior, Civil & Environmental Engineering). Twenty of the top 75 competitors were from MIT (including a student I had dinner with on Friday!).

The Putnam exam is a difficult set of 12 questions, each worth 10 points for a total of 120 possible points. Nearly 4,000 students sat for the exam, giving up 6 hours of their weekend this past December. Often, the median score is 0 (meaning that more than half of the test takers earned no points), and usually is 1 or 2 (yes, out of 120).

Here’s problem #1 from this year, probably the most accessible of the problems (and one of the only problems I can write without special characters).

A1. Basketball star Shanille O’Keal’s team statistician keeps track of the number, S(N), of successful free throws she has made in her first N attempts of the season. Early in the season, S(N) was less than 80% of N, but by the end of the season, S(N) was more than 80% of N. Was there necessarily a moment in between when S(N) was exactly 80% of N?

They’re looking for more than just a yes or no answer here =) For those of you interested in playing with it before seeing the answer, do so; the solution is in the comments section.

As a former MIT math major (though I ultimately received my degree in Management Science), I can say that the department is pretty cool, with some great professors, interesting research opportunities, and the opportunity to study math for a year at the University of Cambridge in Cambridge, England (full entry about the Cambridge exchange coming soon).

Congratulations to the MIT Putnam team and all competitors!

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