Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Congratulations to Evan O'Dorney

17-Year-Old Wins Intel's $100K Science Prize reports:

Danville's Evan O'Dorney wins Intel Science Talent Search

At 17, Danville's Evan O'Dorney already has won the National Spelling Bee and a gold medal at an international math Olympiad, meeting two presidents along the way. On Tuesday, he claimed the triple-crown: the coveted Intel Science Talent Search's $100,000 top prize.

Evan became California's first budding scientist to take home what's known as the Nobel Prize for high school students.

"I'm excited and shocked," Evan said after his win Tuesday. "This has been exciting, especially the judging interviews. All the science questions and working with scientists who are in very different fields than me, I'm very grateful."


Perhaps it's no surprise that this scholastic ninja -- did we mention he's a black belt in tae kwon do? -- once again has found himself taking down his overachieving competition: In 2007, he correctly spelled "schuhplattler," "laquear" and "serrefine" to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee. That's when he met his first president: George W. Bush.

At the Intel competition, something about approximating square roots won him the top prize and a chance to meet President Barack Obama, who had called to congratulate him the year before.

That's when Evan won gold at the 51st International Mathematical Olympiad, and the top prize in "Who Wants to be a Mathematician?" Well, Evan does. He hopes to one day be a professor of mathematics -- and continue singing and playing the piano.

Yes, in addition to claiming academic prizes, Evan also studies piano performance and composition at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and has written, among other things, a musical representation of the number pi, an opera and a piano concerto.


Evan says the person who's had the most influence on his scientific career is his mother, Jennifer, who home-schools him. His dad, Michael, is a BART operator.

His Intel prize is the result of research he did after Stanford University professor Brian Conrad invited him to tackle a problem regarding the approximation of square roots.

"After mulling the problem over in my head for nearly a year," he wrote in his Intel application, "I began generating and studying large amounts of computer data." He then describes manipulating formulas and observing patterns in the computer's calculations, and in the end, he came up with "an unexpectedly simple" formula. Well, maybe for him.

"A deep, lifelong fascination with the patterns of numbers," Evan wrote, "was my main source of inspiration throughout."

What the article unfortunately doesn't say is that Evan is a long-time and very active member, contributor, and leader in the Berkeley Math Circle. He is second from right in this picture, next to the circle's leader and founder, Zvezda Stankova. (Those are Klein bottles drawn on the blackboard in the rear, by the way.)

He is not a solitary mathematician who works alone. That's an invalid stereotype to begin with, and Evan certainly does not exemplify it.

Two years ago, at the Great Circles conference at Mathematical Sciences Research Institute (MSRI), I watched him captain the Berkeley Math Circle as his team of six challenged the Stanford Math Circle in a "Math Battle". (No, it's not a contact sport! He didn't need to use his tae kwon do skills. It's an oral battle of mathematical wits in which teams work together to develop and present solutions to tough mathematical problems in front of a panel of judges. It takes teamwork, good mathematical skills, good poise and thinking on your feet, and good communication skills. Check out the streaming video here.)

After winning many local Bay Area math contests, Evan took over the job of running the Bay Area monthly math contests himself. He is a great example of an important principle in practice--the more you give of your own mathematical understanding to others, the more you yourself will grow mathematically.

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