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…

(Please don’t ask me to explain them…)

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

(via Tanya Khovanova)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • http://twitter.com/mjparme Michael Parmeley

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

  • http://religiouscomics.net/ Jeff P

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

  • http://onefuriousllama.com/ One Furious Llama

    So much respect.

  • http://onefuriousllama.com/ One Furious Llama

    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’.

  • http://www.facebook.com/GooBallin Goo Ball

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

    • http://www.facebook.com/gregm766 Gregory Marshall

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

    • 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. :)

    • http://twitter.com/mjparme Michael Parmeley

      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.

  • 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!  ;-)

  • 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.

    • http://religiouscomics.net/ Jeff P

      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

      • 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.”

        • 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.

        • Whoyousexing

          The Jew bankers would complain too as the price of the gold and diamonds would drop to next to nothing like they are actually worth. See how handy gold and diamonds are in survival mode when the economy totally collapses and it’s survival in the field time. I foresee some real appocalyptic events coming right at us. I can’t believe more people don’t see it coming…

    • 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)

      • 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.

        • 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. 

    • 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?

  • UsuallyScarlett

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

    • 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.

    • 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?

  • http://www.facebook.com/ryurack Rebel Yurack

    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. 

  • 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. 

    • http://sprengdentag.wordpress.com/ lost control

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

    • Anonymous

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

  • 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.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_OAUXAA362EXWLYVMPJOKLFB5JQ Incipient Madness

    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. 

  • http://twitter.com/Jalyth JT the Girl

    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.

  • http://twitter.com/Jalyth JT the Girl

    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.

    • Anonymous

      Grr, affirmative action irritates me as prejudiced thinking. 

  • 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. 

    • 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.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_IX47GECOPDV5U4DPIXA3BABQXI The Connaisseur

    “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.

  • 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…

    • http://religiouscomics.net/ Jeff P

      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.

    • 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.

      • http://skepticsplay.blogspot.com miller

        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. ;-)

  • 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” :)

  • The Porridge Master

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

  • Anonymous

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

  • 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

    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.

  • Vickiinmyhead

    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!

  • http://twitter.com/sequel25 sequel

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

  • Shankhadip

    She is the best in the world in her age group,yes.But to say she is the best ever is a bit too much,she has participated in the IMO five times and consistently been the tops and so she has more medals than anyone else,one could argue that she got in the team at a young age,but there are few other examples say Terence Tao for instance who was younger than she was in his first IMO,he is the best mathematician in the world today,he could have outdone her record quite easily had he continued.All said and done she is definitely a breathe of fresh air,hoping for some more in the future.


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