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Hard Problems: The Road to the World's Toughest Math Contest

George Paul Csicsery
Mathematical Association of America
Publication Date: 
[Reviewed by
Charles Ashbacher
, on

The world of research in mathematics and science can be a very competitive one, despite the clear need among the participants to cooperate. One of the most difficult competitions in the world is the International Mathematical Olympiad. Each participating country is allowed to send a team of six to the competition and the participants are selected by a series of national competitive exams. This movie is a recapitulation of the selection and performance of the U.S. team that competed in Ljubljana, Slovenia, in 2006.

It is impossible to be anything but impressed by the people on the team. Not only are they incredibly gifted in mathematics, their performance in other areas such as music and geography is astonishing. As you watch them go through the grueling series of challenges, you are awed yet pleased with their performance. In addition to their personal achievements, everyone in mathematics and science is striving to improve the level of knowledge and make sure the next generation is capable of doing the same. After viewing this film, all mathematicians will take comfort in knowing that there will be continued advancement in mathematics.

There are two versions of the main movie, a longer one of 82 minutes and a shorter classroom version of 45 minutes. In my opinion, the full one should be the only one presented in a math class or anywhere else. While the editors did a good job of choosing the best parts, there are still some significant things missing in the shorter version.

My wife knows little mathematics beyond the basic statistics she took for her psychology degree. She watched it with me and her interest was maintained throughout the movie. She regularly commented on the talent of the participants and asked questions about the structure of the sequence of exams.

If I taught the history of mathematics, I would make this DVD required viewing. There is no question that if you were to fast forward 100 years in the future, any course in the history of mathematics will include the accomplishments of some of the people on the U.S. IMO 2006 team.

Charles Ashbacher splits his time between consulting with industry in projects involving math and computers, teaching college classes and co-editing The Journal of Recreational Mathematics. In his spare time, he reads about these things and helps his daughter in her lawn care business.

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