Customer Review

37 of 44 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars This Isn't SPELLBOUND, May 13, 2004
This review is from: Count Down: Six Kids Vie for Glory at the World's Toughest Math Competition (Hardcover)
Having loved SPELLBOUND, and being both a mathematics major in college and a high school math teacher, I opened this book with great anticipation. Unfortunately, I closed it in utter disappointment a week later after forcing myself to finish it. From its name (an absurd attempt to create a sense of excitement which the author completely fails to deliver) to its cover subtitle to its book jacket text, this book promises to introduce us to "the kids," the brilliant young people who pursue mathematics out of talent, but also out of love for its artistry and unparalleled aesthetics. Instead, the author gives us rehash after rehash of "expert" opinion about genius, creativity, talent, problem-solving, and the like. Not one new or original idea, just repetition of material that's better read in its originals (e.g., Martin Gardner, or "Einstein and Picasso"). The one area that could have been truly original was to introduce the reader to the young mathematicians themselves. To prospective readers: if you read the generic, one-paragraph description of the six contestants from the book jacket, you'll know almost as much about these youngsters as if you had read the whole book.
Count Down is a missed opportunity, and unfortunately, its publication probably prohibits anyone else from writing the book that should have been written. Who are these six young people? Who are their families and teachers? How do they interact with the world, and how does the world interact with them? What are the dynamics among the six young people who make the team? What are they thinking as they try to solve the problems from the Olympiad? Steve Olson leaves these six very human youngsters as stick figures, wooden, nearly devoid of personality. He offers us no significant insight into their characters, their lives, or their families. As I read this book, I kept thinking how far short it falls from the richness of SPELLBOUND, both as a sociological statement about family, discipline, and goal-setting, as well as an exploration of directed intelligence and its effects on the young participants.
As one example, Chapter 8 is supposed to introduce us to a young man named Oaz Nir. After learning far more about his private school than we need (its motto, its wooded location helped with an unnecessarily pretentious quote from Faulkner, and knowing that the Mississippi Symphony played a concert there), we are treated to the following insights from his teachers:
"He was a good writer, interested in history."
"He was a good citizen at this school."
"We had to think of things to keep him busy."
"He taught me as much as I taught him."
It's a miracle he learned anything from teachers with this much depth and insight, and it's a waste of the reader's time to read such drivel. When Oaz learns that he has been invited to a summer math training camp, his response (according to the author) is: "I was very excited about going." A page later, the author apparently needs to cite David Brooks from the Atlantic Monthly to tell us that high schools have cliques, that "that's just the way life is."
Count Down is a huge disappointment, filled with banalities, wandering among topics like Good Will Hunting and a far-too-lengthy discussion of Andrew Wiles' experiences with Fermat's Last Theorem, and seemingly doing everything possible to avoid actually talking about the kids. What could have been a fascinating human study turns out to be a rehash of old math stories and quotations and debates about nature vs. nurture, genius, talent, creativity, and the like. The book lacks focus and utterly fails to introduce us to six fascinating young people. Even the attempts to make the Olympiad outcome exciting are feeble, including a misleading chapter title of "Triumph" and a bizarre build-up about the team coach and one player's score that inexplicably falls flat by ending with the coach saying "Five's fine," as though it never happened.
The ending includes a reference to a famous formula, e to the (i x pi) power = -1. The author mentions the amazing interconnectedness of different fields of math study displayed by this formula which only mathematicians will really appreciate. At the same time, he fails to note that another representation, e to the (i x pi) power + 1 = 0, which is far easier for the average reader to see the beauty of, since e, i, pi, 1, and 0, the five most significant values in mathematics, are related in a single equation.
All in all, a huge disappointment. The one star is for trying, and for at least writing a general interest book about math. But if you're looking for a math equivalent to SPELLBOUND, you'll have to look elsewhere.
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Steve Koss

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