Junior Connor Ritchie won the Mathematics Department’s first Erdős Prize for being Syracuse University’s top finisher in the William Lowell Putnam Mathematics Competition. The Putnam Competition is the premier mathematics competition for undergraduate students in the United States and Canada, and is organized by the Mathematical Association of America (MAA). Ritchie, who is a math major at the College of Arts and Sciences (A&S) and a music composition major at the College of Visual and Performing Arts, finished in the top 500 out of nearly 3,000 students from 427 institutions. Ritchie’s placement in the top 20% improved from his ranking in the top 30% in 2019.
Ritchie was part of a four-person team at Syracuse, which also included Yuming Jiang (math and physics major in A&S), Anthony Mazzacane (math major in A&S and computer science major in the College of Engineering and Computer Science [ECS]) and Michael Perry (mathematics in A&S and computer science in ECS). The test, given in December, consisted of 12 difficult math problems covering a range of topics, from geometry and calculus to number theory and abstract algebra. According to Leonid Kovalev, a professor and associate director of mathematics who also serves as the team’s coach, success in the competition depends not only on prior mathematical knowledge, but also on creative thinking and proof-writing skills.
To help the team prepare, Kovalev held several practice sessions during the fall 2021 semester. He sent prospective students a list of issues and then met with the group to discuss them in person. “We’ve found problem-solving sessions work better in person than on Zoom,” he says. “The training sessions and the competition itself develop problem-solving skills that propel students to success beyond their undergraduate careers and increase the chances of admission to competitive graduate programs. “
For Ritchie, the rigorous training was worth it as it set him up for his best result in elite competition. He says working on problems leading up to the test and learning new techniques and tricks for solving new types of equations has been critical to his success. “It was so satisfying to see a difficult problem, wrestle with it for a while, and finally solve it after a lot of effort,” says Ritchie. “This was made possible thanks to our long preparation beforehand.”
As the Syracuse team’s top finisher, Ritchie received the department’s first Erdős Award in April. The Department of Mathematics created the award as a way to recognize excellence in math problem solving among Syracuse undergraduates. The prize is named after Paul Erdős (1913-1996), a Hungarian mathematician linked to Syracuse, renowned for having posed and solved many mathematical problems. He was offering cash prizes for hundreds of problems he posed.
“In the mid-1940s, Erdős spent a few years at Syracuse University,” Kovalev explains. “His obituary published by the MAA noted that during this decade he began life as a wandering scholar with the University of Pennsylvania, Notre Dame, Purdue, Stanford University and Syracuse as some of the major steps.”
Ritchie plans to eventually attend graduate school and major in math, music composition, or perhaps both. He says studying each of these subjects as an undergraduate gave him the unique opportunity to explore the intersections of music and math.
“One of the main differences I’ve noticed between the two is that math is completely deterministic whereas music is completely unpredictable,” Ritchie says. “Once you have a math result that turned out to be correct, it’s still correct, no matter what kind of weird edge cases you find to test it. In music composition, there is no theory that explains the precise logic behind every piece of music ever written, and more importantly, there is no theory that describes the precise logic of every future piece of music. to success that will be written.
In a perfect world, Ritchie would like to one day find a job that combines his passion for math and music composition, but says dual majoring in those subjects has allowed him to keep his options open.
Learn more about the Putnam Competition.