Meet Evan O’Dorney, high school math whiz

by Ritika Iyer, staff writer

He learned how to read and solve simple addition problems at age two. He was finishing up calculus by the sixth grade, and won the Scripps National Spelling Bee when he was 14.

Now, at age 17, ‘whiz kid’ Evan O’Dorney is ranked the second best high school mathematician in the world and is Harvard-bound this fall, after winning first place at the Intel Science Talent Search last month.

After sending in a thorough application with his research in mathematics to the ISTS, Evan, a home-schooled teenager living in Danville, was one of 40 high school seniors that were invited to Washington D.C. from March 9-16 to compete for the grand prize– a $100,000 scholarship.

The scholarship required Evan to go through two grueling days of interviews.

“The scary thing is that you have no idea how well you are doing until the very end of the awards ceremony,” said Evan. “They called the winners in reverse order so I didn’t know if I was one or nothing.”

Fortunately for Evan, his was the last name called.

“I remember right before they called me, I was thinking that ‘it’s all up to the judges now.’ If they want me, they will call my name,” he said. “Cause you never know, it’s so subjective.”

But winning was not all fun and games. Evan worked very hard to become an established mathematician.

When he was 14, Evan was approached by Stanford professors Ravi Vakil and Brian Conrad to solve an unsolved math problem.

This problem, described by Evan as a ‘number theory’ problem, involved using different methods to approximate a square root, and had never been solved– until Evan laid eyes on it.

For an entire year, Evan ignored the problem, claiming he didn’t have time to work it out.

But in the summer of 2008, Evan took only two weeks to find the solution to the very problem that had stumped the nation’s top mathematicians.

“After I solved the problem that had been posed, I wanted to generalize it to see if the methods I had invented would work on numbers other than the ones the original problem posed,” he said. “A few months later, as I was preparing for a talk at the UC Berkeley Math Circle, I realized my formula could be further reduced, so I fixed it.”

The UC Berkeley Math Circle is a group of graduate students that meet once a week to discuss math topics not dealt with at schools and colleges.

Evan has been a part of the math circle for the past five years, and currently runs the monthly contest for students.

Evan creates the problems, grades the students’ work, and hands out prizes to each winner monthly.

“The Berkeley Math Circle has tremendous influence on him. Zvezda Stanaova, the leader of the circle, has given him opportunities to teach,” said Evan’s mother, Jennifer O’Dorney. “Evan wants to be a math professor, and a lot of  has had to with his teaching experience from the Berkeley Math Circle.”

One activity Evan joined because of the Math Circle is the International Math Olympiad (IMO), a world-wide math competition, that sends six of the best high school mathematicians from each participating country to compete in a math oriented decathalon.

“I think the problems are well designed and I like being able to go into the contest and work challenging problems,” said Evan of IMO.

Math is something Evan has always enjoyed and been passionate about.

“It wasn’t anything I pushed, it was something that he gravitated to himself,” said  O’Dorney. “He was so interested in numbers from so early on and it just progressed.”

After Evan turned 10 years old, and his academic level surpassed his mother’s, Mrs. O’Dorney’s job has been to keep Evan’s interest in math satisfied, and to encourage him to pursue more opportunities.

“He picked up things very quickly, and he still does learn everything fast, so you go with it, you work with it,” said Mrs. O’Dorney. “He was the type of the kid that latched on to that stuff early (math), so now, the only part that I can do is to encourage him to practice his problems.”

But it doesn’t just stop at math for Evan.

In fact, Evan won the Scripps National Spelling Bee in 2007, garnering a lot of attention. Ever since the Bee, Evan’s success has only escalated.

Evan created a notation system for composing music–notes as numbers.

The complex system was made by labeling each key of the piano with a number and using dots to count beats.

As an avid piano player since the age of five, Evan took piano and composition lessons at The San Francisco Conservatory of Music for five years.

Although Evan loves both music and math, he likes to keep them separate.

“I don’t usually try to connect music with the other stuff. I know that mathematicians have a disproportionate tendency to be musicians, but I take music as a way to be creative and let out my emotions,” said Evan. “I don’t think of math when I’m doing music and I don’t think of music when I’m doing math.”

Evan and his mother are sure he was born gifted. But being gifted has had some effect on Evan’s life.

“We take homeschooling year by year and see how its going. With Evan, he’s been easy to work with the whole time, so its worked,” said Mrs. O’Dorney. “We keep a semi-schedule, we make sure stuff gets done every week. Mostly, my approach is to keep hands-off more now.”

Homeschooling has clearly worked well for the O’Dorney family. In the fall, Evan will be attending Harvard University, his dream school.

“I don’t know whether I’ll like the East coast more than the West coast, but I know I will like the math program at Harvard better than anything else because it is an exceptional school,” he said.

Evan’s mother admitted she will miss her son dearly, but understands it is what he really wants and he has worked hard to achieve his goals.

“Evan has been blessed with many gifts,” she said. “As far as the achievements go, he has worked very hard to get where he is at, and he definitely earned this.”