Hang on tight.
Shyam Narayanan, 13, is going to race through the kind of circuit-burning thinking that made him the youngest contestant yet to win the national Who Wants to Be a Mathematician contest.
Here’s one of the problems fired his way in game-show-fashion in a Boston auditorium thick with professional mathematicians:
1. The letters D, K, O, S, U and U are used to form six-letter “words,” which are put in alphabetical order. In what position is the word “Sudoku”?
a. 210, b. 216, c. 219, d. 435
Because one of the chief aims of the contest, created in part by Mike Breen of the American Mathematical Society, was to put youthful math masters into the same hot-light arena pressure as athletes, imagine him poised over a “Jeopardy”-like buzzer trying to beat other nationally recognized math whizzes to the punch.
Shyam rattles off some of the basic setups, counting aloud, “60 possibilities, 60 possibilities, 60 possibilities…”
Next he’s putting some of the letters into pairs, “SK, 12 possibilities, SO, 12 possibilities…”
His mind is clearly sprinting beyond his lips’ ability to keep up. In his head, he’s already there.
The face behind it all is that of a Blue Valley West freshman. A competitive swimmer. A piano player. A kid who hangs out with his friends.
He looks like any other freshman toting a backpack full of books — except when you note that, when he stepped out of class Monday to talk about his national achievement, he left a room full of seniors in Advanced Placement Statistics.
In the final round of the championship Friday, Breen said, Shyam was paired with one other finalist. As each in the series of eight questions was displayed, Shyam was buzzing in with an answer in many cases even before Breen had finished reading the problem.
He swept to the championship.
“People were astonished how fast he was going,” Breen said. “If he were a senior, people would have been amazed. And he was a freshman.”
In his retelling of the Sudoku problem, Shyam explains how the presence of two U’s requires some doubling of possibilities.
Because this contest was part of one of the nation’s largest math gatherings — the annual conference of the American Mathematical Society and the Mathematical Association of America — the overflowing auditorium of some 500 or so people included hundreds of mathematicians who were trying to solve the problems themselves, Breen said.
Many of them were racing along the same track as Shyam, approaching the right answer. But again, in most of the problems like the Sudoku problem, Shyam had already lit his buzzer.
It was around about the sixth grade that Shyam’s father, Sam Narayanan, realized his son was faster than him.
Shyam has been competing in math competitions since grade school, and his father would help him prepare with mock contests.
Narayanan is a financial consultant. His wife, Padma, is a psychiatrist. Both have mathematicians in their family lineage, though Shyam seems to have surged to a new level of mental computing.
In the three years that the Who Wants to be a Mathematician contest has gone national, Shyam was the youngest ever to qualify for the final tournament, Breen said.
More than 1,000 students entered by attempting the qualifying exam.
Sam Narayanan had seen his son in speed tournaments before. He’s won many contests. But this one, with the kind of audience that was watching, was stunning to him.
“He was phenomenal,” Sam Narayanan said. “He wowed the crowd.”
The contest awards a $10,000 prize, half of which goes to his high school. He’s talking with the school about using it to launch a new math club.
Blue Valley West Principal Tony Lake first got a tip that Shyam was headed his way when he drove a high school honors geometry textbook to Shyam’s elementary school when he was in the fifth grade.
He’s witnessed a lot of math wizardry since then, and heard the tales. He prompted Shyam to retell one of them.
As a middle school student, Shyam got a chance to visit the White House with some other invited math champions. Shyam had a math question ready for President Barack Obama.
The Oval Office, if it were a true ellipse, would have two “foci,” which would align with the exacting properties that medical technology uses to help make precise laser cuts, or “break down kidney stones,” Shyam said.
Obama, Shyam said, did not know the locations of the Oval Office’s foci.