Cape Town - The International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO) will come to Africa for the first time on July 3. For 10 days, teams of high school pupils from 109 countries (which is a record for the IMO and includes 14 African countries) will gather at UCT to compete for gold, silver and bronze medals as a reward for wrestling with mathematical problems.

It will be presented by the South African Mathematics Foundation.

The first African participant in the IMO was Tunisia, which has attended the Olympiad 22 times since 1981 and has taken home one gold medal, four silver, 14 bronze and 11 honourable mentions. South Africa has participated 22 times, but began attending the IMO only in 1992 (the year Tunisia won the first gold medal for Africa). We have brought home one gold medal, nine silver, 36 bronze and 43 honourable mentions.

Nigeria and Ivory Coast began attending the IMO in 2006 and 2010, respectively, and they have each won medals and honourable mentions. The other African countries attending this year are: Benin, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Gambia, Ghana, Madagascar, Morocco, Tanzania, Uganda and Zimbabwe.

The IMO will include 582 contestants who will be required to complete two papers, each presenting three problems. The teams will have 106 leaders, 102 deputies and 132 observers, representing altogether more than 90 percent of the world’s population and speaking 50 different languages.

But the statistic that fills me with particular pride is that five of the six team members representing South Africa are from the Western Cape (the sixth is proudly representing KwaZulu-Natal). The Western Cape participants are all veterans of the Mathematics Competition organised by UCT every year for high schools in the province.

Their thought processes spark a keen interest among people who wonder what makes a mathematician’s brain tick. Films like Good Will Hunting give a glimpse into how a mathematical genius might view the world. One of the mysteries about maths is: why is it so dominated by males?

Boys do tend to outnumber girls in high school mathematical events – often by as much as 10 to one. Statistical evidence suggests that boys may display a wider range of mental ability – from the very bright to the very dim – than is normally found among girls. This may mean that boys in general will tend to have more candidates at the end of the mental scale that is required to analyse and solve complex mathematical problems. Neurologists are even beginning to investigate whether the hormone testosterone may play a part, by encouraging the aggressive instinct that leads one to hunt down the solution to a mathematical problem or theory.

In the first 100 names in the IMO Hall of Fame – the list of top-performing participants over the last 54 years – only two are female. One of them is Ana Caraiani of Romania, who took home three gold medals from the IMOs she attended in 2001, 2002 and 2003. The other one is Lisa Sauermann of Germany, who set a new performance record when she achieved a perfect score and won five medals (four gold, one silver) over the five years she participated in the IMO between 2007 and 2011. (Her performance has since been outflanked by Teodor von Burg of Serbia, who took home four gold medals, one silver and one bronze from 2007 to 2012.) This year Sauermann comes to the IMO as a co-ordinator.

The IMO has grown steadily since it was first held in Romania in 1959. Today, it is the oldest, biggest and most prestigious of all the international science Olympiads.

Three world-class mathematicians – South African Peter Sarnak of Princeton University, German Günther Ziegler of the Free University of Berlin and Briton John Barrow of Cambridge University – will join the IMO to talk to participants. (Professor Barrow’s lecture, “The evolution of the universe”, at 6pm on July 9, will also be open to the public as a UCT Vice-Chancellor’s Open Lecture.)

* Professor Webb of UCT is the director of the IMO 2014 and the director of the annual UCT Mathematics Competition for Western Cape high school pupils.

Cape Times