Davidson's Math Whiz Kids Shine with "Jeopardy" Victory at Regional Mathematics Meeting

Four Davidson math majors recently added another shining star to the college's historically distinguished record in "quiz bowl" competitions.

The team of Daniel Bernstein '13, Bryan Kelly '14, Matt Mohorn '14 and Colin Thomson '13 brought home the winner's trophy from a "Math Jeopardy" competition held at the annual meeting of the Southeastern Section of the Mathematical Association of America. Twenty-eight teams representing schools in North and South Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia competed in the event, which was held at Winthrop University.

"The seniors carried the team," reported Mohorn. "They've been studying for grad school exams so they were pretty sharp."

Professor Michael Mossinghoff, who coached the team, said actually all four members of the team were sharp, and each contributed to the win.

The MAA-SE stages the competition each year at its meeting, and Davidson usually fields a team. Bernstein and Thomson, the two seniors, had the advantage of experience playing on last year's team. However, that team didn't make it past the first round. Davidson last won the event in 2006, and made the final round in three of the last six years.

The department staged a Jeopardy game at one of its regular Math Coffee sessions to attract other team members to play this year with Bernstein and Thomson. Mossinghoff led the effort to recruit and organize the squad. However, he did little else other than offering general encouragement and making sure everyone understood the rules.

Team members took a casual approach in training for the match, and never actually even held a practice!

Questions covered the many different fields of math, math history, famous mathematicians and some mathematical word play.

The competition was structured like the Jeopardy television show, with a few twists. The four teammates were allowed to confer and use paper and pencil for calculations, and any individual could buzz in at any time with an answer. The board contained high-value "daily double" questions, and wrong answers usually cost just half of the value of that question to encourage more risk-taking.

The Davidson team cruised through the first two rounds of the three round event. In the first round Davidson scored 3201 and the nearest competitor had 2100. In the second round, Davidson posted 3400 and the second-highest score was 200! The first two rounds were played in smaller classrooms, but the finals were staged as the meeting finale plenary event, and attracted an audience of more than 400 people.

The final round pitted Davidson against Berry College, Georgia Regents University, and Lenoir-Rhyne. All four teams played well, but Davidson took the lead early and ended up with 2500 points to top Lenoir-Rhyne with 2200 and Berry with 1599. Perhaps the best calculation of the day for Davidson came as the teams faced the "Final Jeopardy" question, where teams could choose how much they wanted to wager on the answer. "We bet just the right amount so that if we missed it we would still win," Mohorn recalled.

And indeed, Davidson and two other teams missed the final question (what is the square root of 2, minus 1, for the slope of a tangent line to a particular curve given in polar coordinates), but Davidson still took the match due to their conservative strategy.

Mossinghoff said members of the Davidson team had complementary specialties, so that the team represented a broad range of expertise. Mohorn specializes in combinatorics and discrete math. Bernstein and Kelly were good with calculus. Thomson showed impressive insight and quick response to one tricky question. It so impressed a professor in the audience that she was moved to congratulate Thomson about it later.

The team received a handsome trophy for the win, and has put it on display on the math hall in Chambers building.

In addition to the quiz bowl victory, Bernstein received the organization's Walt and Susan Patterson Prize for the top undergraduate research presentation in the field of analysis. His talk "A Strictly Increasing Function with Derivative Zero Almost Everywhere," represents part of his honor theses work. Bernstein constructed De Rham's Function, a fractal curve which arises as a cumulative distribution function for a natural probability question. He proved that this curve has seemingly incompatible properties of being strictly increasing and having derivative zero wherever it exists He plans to continue his math studies by enrolling in a Ph.D. program next year, probably at NC State University.

Mohorn said he was inspired by seeing his professors in the audience during the finals. "I want to thank the phenomenal faculty for taking us to the meeting and supporting us in the competition. It was a good feeling to see them out there and it made me want to win more. As the underclass representatives of the team, Bryan and I are ready to win again next year!"


  • March 21, 2013