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Math stars receive divided attention

Count Down: Six Kids Vie for Glory at the World’s Toughest Math Competition, By Steve Olson, Houghton Mifflin, 244 pp., $24

The air thickens, everyone's staring, your throat tightens, and your palms are leaking sweat. The math teacher has just asked you to solve an unsolvable equation for the class. Your solution: Run crying to your English teacher. Fast.

Sound familiar? It will to most American students who grow up with an aversion to math that borders on allergy. Exactly where this comes from is one of the many intriguing questions Steve Olson seeks to answer in his new book, "Count Down," which follows the six members of the 2001 US International Mathematical Olympiad team as they battle 500 of the toughest young minds from around the world.

Olson introduces us to these math prodigies and the different planes that they operate on, probing to understand where they come from and how, if at all, they differ from their peers. What makes these students tick? Are they geniuses? What propels them to such heights? How did they achieve such an advanced grasp of math?

But "Count Down" isn't entirely what it purports to be. At the start, one assumes Olson is out to capture the same magic that the movie "Spellbound" did so memorably last year. "Count Down," though, is not so much about the students as what they represent. You could say Olson is less interested in the parts than he is the sum, which ends up being a flaw of the book even as it allows an exploration of insightful and worthwhile digressions.

The Olympiad is an annual event that draws students from dozens of countries. Competition is fierce, but so is the camaraderie. (The American team generally fares pretty well, if you're wondering, though the students from countries such as China, Russia, and Korea are tough to beat.)

The final competition involves six problems over two days. Olson neatly organizes "Count Down" around them: He uses the problems to detail traits of each American team member, providing useful insights into their success. Some are hard workers; others are adroit at applying principles they've learned. A few seem to have an almost mystical understanding of the mathematical world.

Olson spends a good deal of the book examining possible reasons for high achievement -- he includes sections on talent, inspiration, and gender, among others. He is more interested in raising questions here than answering them, though he makes an effective case that the six Olympians excel because they possess the right combination of skills -- much of which, he argues, have more to do with nurture than nature.

Perhaps the most interesting digression covers creativity. Olson illustrates how a seemingly mundane math problem often requires a wandering mind. It's a trait everyone on the team shares. "In that respect," Olson writes, "the members of an Olympiad team are not only mathematicians: they are artists working in a medium of form and numbers."

Unfortunately, at 244 pages, "Count Down" is too slim to fully explore all of these underlying themes while also developing the six Olympians into three-dimensional beings. Perhaps "Spellbound" has spoiled us, but 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.

The glimpses we do get are fascinating. (All six members of the team, for instance, are accomplished pianists.) And Olson does spend considerable time trying to debunk the stereotype of the maladjusted math nerd; the students here clearly defy that.

Even as Olson makes the case that the students aren't superhuman, he's clearly awed by their abilities. And he's awed, in a way that's infectious, by the sheer beauty of what they do. "Just as anyone can marvel at a great painting, a sublime piece of music, or a thunderous slam dunk without being a painter, composer, or basketball player, so anyone can appreciate the power and beauty of elegant mathematical problems and solutions," he writes. "They are products of the human mind, as mysterious and inspiring as are all acts of creation."

Mysterious and inspiring, perhaps, Olson suggests, but also familiar in a way. The six Olympians may seem to be from a different quadrant, he concludes, but their genius may be so appealing because we all possess a bit of it ourselves, in our own ways.

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