Bookmarks Issue: 
Steve Olson

Six Kids Vie for Glory at the World’s Toughest Math Competition

A-Count DownThe six Olympians in Olson’s new book train for months, eager for the chance to represent their country in worldwide competition. But the only weights they lift are their pencils; they are participants in the International Mathematical Olympiad, in which math whizzes from dozens of nations test their skills against six difficult problems. Olson reproduces these problems (an appendix explains their answers), but he focuses on the solver, not the solution. What makes some kids math geniuses when most shun the subject? What roles do gender, culture, and creativity play in the formation of a Mathematical Olympian? Following each of the American contestants through one problem, Olson considers the social and psychological factors that draw some kids to number-crunching—and push others away.
Houghton Mifflin. 244 pages. $24.
ISBN: 0618251413

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"This book is more human interest than calculus textbook, more sink-your-teeth-into-them stories of kids, parents and coaches accomplishing astounding results than mathematical analyses. It is a fabulous examination into the elements of so-called genius and a look into the nature versus nurture debate that will transfix readers." Bernadette Murphy

Chicago Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"Alternating his narrative among the core story of the 2001 Olympiad and detours into U.S. team members’ backgrounds, the history of mathematics, and broader philosophical and sociological inquiries, Olson has produced an elegant study that deserves a large readership." Eric Arnesen

Detroit Free Press 4 of 5 Stars
"Count Down is only partly about math. It’s mostly about motivation, talent and creativity and how they come together to make six unusual kids tick." Marta Salij

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"… a remarkably engaging little book that demystifies math and probably ought to be read by anyone living in a technological society. … Some writers might have spent more time trying to create a tick-tock drama in the tale of the Olympiad …, but Olson doesn’t manufacture any false tension." Joel Achenbach

Boston Globe 2.5 of 5 Stars
"… one desperately wants to know more about these kids: what their rooms look like, what their superstitions are, their hopes and dreams. At times it seems as if Olson struggled with which book to write." Scott W. Helman

Critical Summary

America is not a nation of math-lovers. Olson’s subjects are, for the most part, the kind of kids his readers never were. However, he resists turning the Olympians into curiosities or players in a high-stakes drama. Instead, he uses the Olympiad as a springboard for discussing compelling issues of nature, nurture, and competitive drive. Some of these discussions crowd out the kids themselves; Olson doesn’t describe their lives as fully as he might. Nor does he consider all the questions raised by their success. A longer book might have offered a more complete view of the International Mathematical Olympiad, its role in the lives of its participants, and its place in American society. Still, Count Down is by all accounts an engaging read.

Supplemental Reading

AS-Millennium ProblemsThe Millennium Problems The Seven Greatest Unsolved Mathematical Puzzles of Our Time | Keith J. Devlin (2002): The Clay Mathematics Institute has offered $1,000,000 to the first person to find the solution to any of these seven unsolved problems outlined for the layperson by NPR commentator Devlin.

AS-Bee SeasonBee Season | Myla Goldberg (2000): A debut novel from Goldberg in which previously unremarkable 9-year-old Eliza Naumann wins her school’s spelling bee. Her father takes a newfound interest in her (to the detriment of her older brother) and introduces Eliza to Jewish mysticism.