The Thistle - An E-Newsletter of Scotch College, Perth, Western Australia

A Passion for Mathematics

"The essence of Mathematics is not to make simple things complicated but to make complicated things simple."  Unfortunately, this quote by Stanley Gudder is not a common feeling for the average student who grapples with solving complex problems in their Mathematics classes every day. However, for one student at Scotch College, using Mathematics to think about the complexities of the world is the norm.

In 2018, William Steinberg, Year 11 Brisbane, was selected to represent Australia in the International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO) in Romania where he went on to earn a Silver Medal and assist his team to place 11th in the world. Remarkably, William was selected again this year for the Australian team, as one of only six, who would compete in Bath, England. This competition sees 120 countries from around the world select, through a rigorous process of testing, six of their most gifted school age Mathematicians to compete in a two day competition where there are just six problems to solve.  The complexity of these questions is such that, participants have approximately an hour and a half to solve each one. Competitors work individually, uninterrupted, for four and a half hours in hopes that they will see the hidden clues buried in the nuance of the question.

When asking William what he loves about Mathematics, he described the way in which Mathematics can be learned. He strongly believes developing a very deep understanding of theory before tackling problems is the most efficient method and suggests that rote learning various processes has its limitations. When he speaks about the IMO problems, he said he was surprised, along with other competitors, how unique the questions are from year to year and that it would be impossible to rote learn the techniques needed to be successful.  "You have to rely on your ability to see the problem in a multitude of ways." For most of us, the possibility of unravelling these problems would appear limited, however, for a student like William, he knows that the answer will become obvious once he establishes the correct pathway. He explains, the art of Mathematics is often the creativity needed to find the clues embedded within the problem and then use a range of skills to unravel the outcome, turning the complex into simple.

It's rare to come across a student so capable in Mathematics that teaching is less important than watching, learning and guiding. William is incredibly humble and when I asked him if he ever has challenges learning Mathematics he said, "if I ever want to give myself a reality check and know how limited my Maths really is, I try and read papers of proofs, like Yitang Zhang's work on number theory.  A 50 page proof of modern problems is really hard to follow, even 4 pages in. They are incredibly complex and then I realise exactly how much I have to learn!"  He laughs, I laugh too! It's hard to not be in awe. We wish William all the very best in the upcoming competition and hope the secrets of the problems he will face will become apparent quickly.