The Best Young Math Problem Solver in the World Is a Girl August 10, 2011

# The Best Young Math Problem Solver in the World Is a Girl

Remember how awesome it was that the top three finishers at the Google Science Fair were all girls? They got some well-deserved attention for that.

Here’s a story that probably won’t get as much press, but it’s just as impressive considering how few women go into mathematics.

At the 2011 International Mathematical Olympiad, 18-year-old Lisa Sauermann not only obtained a perfect score — giving her sole possession of first place — her gold medal performance put her atop the IMO Hall of Fame.

In other words, she’s the best problem solver in the more-than-50-year history of the competition. And she’s a she.

In case you’re curious, these are three of the six problems she had to solve in this year’s tournament…

Speaking of women in math, you’ve all seen Vi Hart‘s latest video, right? Excellent.

(via Tanya Khovanova)

Browse Our Archives

• I don’t even understand the questions. There are people that can answer these?

• I’m tempted to give them a try, but damn it, I need to get some real work done today.  🙂

• So much respect.

• So much respect.

• A Thinker

I have so much respect for her getting perfect on this competition. I have exactly the same amount of respect I would if she was a ‘he’.

• That’s kinda neat and all, but what does it have to do with Atheism?

• mspeir

That’s just sick!  Anybody who’s better at math than me is sick.  Lots and lots of sick people in this world, I’m tellin’ you!  😉

• mspeir

That’s just sick!  Anybody who’s better at math than me is sick.  Lots and lots of sick people in this world, I’m tellin’ you!  😉

• Nothing, but it has everything to do with breaking down stereotypes.

• spiders

An 18 year old is not a child.  An adult female human is called a “woman,” or a “young woman.”  Infantalizing women is a contributing factor in why women are often not perceived as good at intellectual tasks, like math.

Some previous year, has there ever been a post titled “The Best Young Math Problem Solver in the World Is a Boy”? The title implies that women are not normally good at math.

• Anonymous

Might be worth noting that Hemant is a math teacher, and there is the occasional off-topic post, privilege of being the blog’s owner. 😉 That and the fact that atheism has allies amongst other movements harmed by religion (which isn’t _directly_ the case here, but on the whole feminism certainly isn’t helped any) and it’s nice to give a shout-out when something good happens to a friend, as it were. 🙂

• UsuallyScarlett

So, you’re saying that somehow her winning is abnormal because she’s a “girl”?

• Woah woah woah. Lay off. “The Best Young Math Problem Solver in the World is a Girl” title is just a simple statement. There’s no animosity or misogyny or even incredulity implied by it. There’s nothing implied by it, except the possible “duh”.

As for the article;
::sigh::
I could have been that good. But I discovered other things around 10th grade. I miss math. There was always a reason that your answer was right or wrong.

• Hemant Mehta

Um, no…  I’m saying we’re so used to thinking of math as a male-dominated field that it’s awesome to see a woman rock at a tournament like this one.

• Perhaps the social meme that “women are not normally good at math” is what Hemant was trying to shatter with this story.  Any math performance deficit among women (if there is any) is only due to socialization.  Not innate ability.

• Hemant Mehta

Sorry for trying to bring attention to a really intelligent woman in a traditionally male-dominated field.

The competition is for students who haven’t entered college yet, and the post I got the information from (written by a woman) also referred to her as a “girl,”  so I wasn’t thinking about that term when I wrote the headline.  I’ll try being more attentive to that in the future

• ben

In regards to some previous comments, I find this more noteworthy than if  a boy (man, male human, as you prefer) won because the lower number of girls (women etc.) in math makes is less likely for them to win, even before including that the ones who do math anyway still face discrimination and hurdles that boys (men) do not.

• bigjohn756

Hemant, you are a math teacher. I expected you to explain each of these problems in detail and produce a proof as to why your answer was correct.

• Renan

There is not a high correlation between IMO medalist and Fields medalists. She didnt solve a big problem nor she helped math in any other way. If she want to be recognized she’d better start solving real math problems and not those made by (male) mathematicians.

• These problems aren’t really advanced, but they are very difficult. Just goes to show that there are plenty of interesting problems that can be expressed in not so advanced math.

• My prediction is that in about a decade, it will be boys and men benefitting from affirmative action laws and scholarships getting them into college.

My comment is tangential at best, but for some reason it’s what I thought of.

• My prediction is that in about a decade, it will be boys and men benefitting from affirmative action laws and scholarships getting them into college.

My comment is tangential at best, but for some reason it’s what I thought of.

• Annie

This is a victory for Lisa Sauermann, for girls, and also for education in general.  I imagine it takes many years (and many teachers) saying you are capable and not dismissing your ability simply because you are a girl to get this good.

• Hey, I wouldn’t mind if Hemant would blog about math, too. I’ve forgotten so much, I wouldn’t mind some refreshers. 😉

• “Here’s a story that probably won’t get as much
press, but it’s just as impressive considering how few women go into
mathematics.”

According to the statistics from the department of commerce recently released, the same percentage of women as men go into mathematics.

• Rich Wilson

Like just isn’t enough.  Hemant, if this were a story about a male, would you say ‘Boy’?  C’mon, you’re better than that.

(Edit: I really should make sure I reload to get recent stuff before I rant)

• heironymous

@twitter-19684120:disqus – not easilyI’m impressed _anyone_ got a perfect six.

On the first one, I can’t think of a nA greater than 3
A general formula would be {a,b,c,ab+ac+bc-(a+b+c)}

On the second one, I’m a little confused, because a point in the middle of a triangle of points would NEVER have l pass through it. I can see the infinite progression of points on the outer edge

The third one, I’d give a shot via an indirect proof. But I don’t see it right away…

• heironymous

@twitter-19684120:disqus – not easilyI’m impressed _anyone_ got a perfect six.

On the first one, I can’t think of a nA greater than 3
A general formula would be {a,b,c,ab+ac+bc-(a+b+c)}

On the second one, I’m a little confused, because a point in the middle of a triangle of points would NEVER have l pass through it. I can see the infinite progression of points on the outer edge

The third one, I’d give a shot via an indirect proof. But I don’t see it right away…

• Anonymous

yay..
since no one here has posted the related smbc comic-post, lemme do the honors:

http://www.smbc-comics.com/index.php?db=comics&id=2214
“Math is gender neutral. And if you disagree, you will be too”
🙂

• On the first one, I tried a linear algebra solution assuming a perfect 6 but it wasn’t solvable.  So I’m saying nA must be less than 6.

• The Porridge Master

Wow, someone did something (relatively) remarkable.  Quick, the morphology of the gonads must be examined!!  Primates are silly.

• miller

#1: Max nA is four. Ex: (1, 5, 7, 11)

#2: You only need to show the existence of a windmill that goes through any point. Not all windmills will satisfy this property.

I’m impressed by anyone who can solve even one of these problems.

• Anonymous

nice job woman. congrats on your victory. i hope it leads to scholarship money and academic opportunity for you.

• Drew M.

If this were a story about a male, his sex wouldn’t be mentioned at all because people expect math whizzes to be male.

That’s the whole point behind Hemant’s headline.

• Drew M.

Yet, no matter how attentive you are in the future, someone will find reason to take offense.

As my dad like to say, “If it were raining diamonds and gold, someone would bitch about the noise on the roof.”

• Rich Wilson

The problem isn’t pointing out that a math wiz is female.  The problem is referring to adult females as ‘girls’ in situations where you wouldn’t use the colloquial ‘boy’ for a male.  In Hemant’s case it wasn’t intentional, he was just passing on what the person who sent it to him had done.

• Drew M.

Point taken.

• Dmacabre

Would you have been happier if nobody had mentioned that a female won this competition at all?  Would that have prevented you from getting offended about someone highlighting a female winning something that stereotypically is thought as something males are better at?

• Lwcat_11

girl, (n): a female child

child, (n): A young human being below the age of full physical development or below the
legal age of majority

She can’t drink or rent a car. She’s still a girl.

• Rich Wilson

How the hell did she survive to 18 without being able to drink?  Oh, you mean ALCOHOL!  Ha ha ha.  Yeah.  ‘Cause THATS what defines an adult.  Not being able to sign a legally binding contract or anything.
Except that in Germany you can drink beer and wine at 16 and anything at 18.You did know she is German, right?

• I’ve concluded that the only other solution to #1 is (1, 11, 19, 29) and all multiples.  I have a proof, but it’s too big for the margins. 😉

• Renshia

Okay this seems like the perfect time for a shameless plug. My nieces daughter, Jena,  went to work with my sister Terrie. Terrie owns her own home renovation company. Terrie taught her how to use a tile cutter. Now Jena wants to teach the world.

You can see her launch to stardom here:

http://youtu.be/OcA4JQgqprU

She’s a girl too.

• Anonymous

I second that.  You’re the expert Hemant and an educator.  We bow to your advanced knowledge and require a through explanation. 😉

• Anonymous

Grr, affirmative action irritates me as prejudiced thinking.

• Valhar2000

Well, honestly, they’d have more than enough reason to bitch (diamonds would cut you up horribly, like broken glass, and gold is so heavy that it would crush the roof).

Still, your point is well taken.

• Anonymous

Just like to say that I loved the doodle video.

• Charles Black

At least women are acknowledged to be no worse than men concerning mathematics.

I being a self proclaimed mathematically challenged arty completely gets what she is saying!!!! I watched her video on multiplication and my mind is blown. I am way too visual and that was the first time that math made sense!!! Ever! Thanks for posting.

I always felt that because I was a girl, I would never really be good at math. My mother always said that she was horrible at it, so I just went a long with her. I could never quite grasp it. Even in high school, having very good grades in all my classes except for math. I passed all of my proficiency tests with flying colors…except for math. I took that damn thing 7 times before I finally passed. Ggrrrr. There needs to be a better perception of math and girls!

• Is there a rule that Hemant can only post about atheism on his blog? It is his blog, he can post whatever the hell he wants.

• where can we get the answers and the other 3 questions?

• Ajtaka

That is utterly stupid and quite big waste of resources. I don’t think she personally has had this problem. She is from Germany and Germany, as Finland where I live, has now days quite equlitarian education system and girls are encouraged to be interested in maths and natural sciences. Atleast here it is the test scores and showing of personal ineterest, that matter to th teacher most. Ofcourse there is some attitude differences still left.

I have heard some teachers say, that both genders need little different handling and teaching tactics in basic education level.  Still I think this is more on per person basis and student are handled based on their interest and motivation level on the subject.

Ofcourse I know that this is not the case in all countries, which is sad. I study astronomy in university and can vouchfrom personal experience, that female and male are just as capable in “hard” sciences and maths. This has much more to do with personal capability, than gender. Also such thinking is utter waste of good resources. There is no scarcity on people who want to be scientist, but there is scarcity on people who are motivated and skilled enough to actually be good at it. Plus basic understanding of mathemathics is good for everyone, so that they can themself check their mortages, loans and other daily life calculation. It keeps you from being cheated, when handing your personal finances.

So if this is problem it should be tackled.