Two Views: How Much Math Do Scientists Need?

31 August 2013

On April 5, 2013, The Wall Street Journal published an essay by the Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson, “Great Scientist ≠ Good at Math”. Berkeley mathematician Edward Frenkel responded to it in Slate on April 9, 2013. We reprint the two essays below, with permission from The Wall Street Journal and Slate.

Great Scientist ≠ Good at Math

E. O. Wilson Shares a Secret: Discoveries Emerge from Ideas, Not Number-Crunching

For many young people who aspire to be scientists, the great bugbear is mathematics. Without advanced math, how can you do serious work in the sciences? Well, I have a professional secret to share: Many of the most successful scientists in the world today are mathematically no more than semiliterate.

During my decades of teaching biology at Harvard, I watched sadly as bright undergraduates turned away from the possibility of a scientific career, fearing that, without strong math skills, they would fail. This mistaken assumption has deprived science of an immeasurable amount of sorely needed talent. It has created a hemorrhage of brain power we need to stanch.

I speak as an authority on this subject because I myself am an extreme case. Having spent my precollege years in relatively poor Southern schools, I didn’t take algebra until my freshman year at the University of Alabama. I finally got around to calculus as a thirty-two-year-old tenured professor at Harvard, where I sat uncomfortably in classes with undergraduate students only a bit more than half my age. A couple of them were students in a course on evolutionary biology I was teaching. I swallowed my pride and learned calculus.

I was never more than a C student while catching up, but I was reassured by the discovery that superior mathematical ability is similar to fluency in foreign languages. I might have become fluent with more effort and sessions talking with the natives, but being swept up with field and laboratory research, I advanced only by a small amount.


More here:

“Mother” is (almost) the same in (almost) all languages

30 August 2013

Language Mother
Afrikaans Moeder, Ma
Albanian Nënë, Mëmë
Arabic Ahm
Aragones Mai
Asturian Ma
Aymara Taica
Azeri (Latin Script) Ana
Basque Ama
Belarusan Matka
Bergamasco Màder
Bolognese Mèder
Bosnian Majka
Brazilian Portuguese Mãe
Bresciano Madèr
Breton Mamm
Bulgarian Majka
Byelorussian Macii
Calabrese Matre, Mamma
Caló Bata, Dai
Catalan Mare
Cebuano Inahan, Nanay
Chechen Nana
Croatian Mati, Majka
Czech Abatyse
Danish Mor
Dutch Moeder, Moer
Dzoratâi Mére
English Mother, Mama, Mom
Esperanto Patrino, Panjo
Estonian Ema
Faeroese Móðir
Finnish Äiti
Flemish Moeder
French Mère, Maman
Frisian Emo, Emä, Kantaäiti, Äiti
Furlan Mari
Galician Nai
German Mutter
Greek Màna
Griko Salentino, Mána
Hawaiian Makuahine
Hindi – Ma, Maji
Hungarian Anya, Fu
Icelandic Móðir
Ilongo Iloy, Nanay, Nay
Indonesian Induk, Ibu, Biang, Nyokap
Irish Máthair
Italian Madre, Mamma
Japanese Okaasan, Haha
Judeo Spanish Madre
Kannada Amma
Kurdish Kurmanji Daya
Ladino Uma
Latin Mater
Leonese Mai
Ligurian Maire
Limburgian Moder, Mojer, Mam
Lingala Mama
Lithuanian Motina
Lombardo Occidentale Madar
Lunfardo Vieja
Macedonian Majka
Malagasy Reny
Malay Emak
Maltese Omm
Mantuan Madar
Maori Ewe, Haakui
Mapunzugun Ñuke, Ñuque
Marathi Aayi
Mongolian `eh
Mudnés Medra, mama
Neapolitan Mamma
Norwegian Madre
Occitan Maire
Old Greek Mytyr
Parmigiano Mädra
Persian Madr, Maman
Piemontese Mare
Polish Matka, Mama
Portuguese Mãe
Punjabi Mai, Mataji, Pabo
Quechua Mama
Rapanui Matu’a Vahine
Reggiano Mèdra
Romagnolo Mèder
Romanian Mama, Maica
Romansh Mamma
Russian Mat’
Saami Eadni
Samoan Tina
Sardinian (Limba Sarda Unificada) Mama
Sardinian Campidanesu mamai
Sardinian Logudoresu Madre, Mamma
Serbian Majka
Shona Amai
Sicilian Matri
Slovak Mama, Matka
Slovenian Máti
Spanish Madre, Mamá, Mami
Swahili Mama, Mzazi, Mzaa
Swedish Mamma, Mor, Morsa
Swiss German Mueter
Telegu Amma
Triestino Mare
Turkish Anne, Ana, Valide
Turkmen Eje
Ukrainian Mati
Urdu Ammee
Valencian Mare
Venetian Mare
Viestano Mamm’
Vietnamese me
Wallon Mére
Welsh Mam
Yiddish Muter
Zeneize Moæ

The reason here:

Malaysian Computing Competition 2013

27 August 2013

The registration for MCC 2013 is now open.

Visit the following website for details and registration:

The MCC is organized by the Malaysian Informatics and Programming Society & Kulliyyah of ICT, IIUM.


What is MCC?

The Malaysian Computing Competition (MCC) is a paper-based contest that is used as a preliminary selection round for the International Olympiad in Informatics (IOI). The MCC was founded in 2012 to fill the need for a programming contest for Malaysian high schools students.

Malaysia first participated in the IOI 2011 (Thailand) as an invited observer, before sending full teams to IOI 2012 (Italy) and IOI 2013 (Australia). MCC 2013 is the preliminary selection round for the Malaysian team to the IOI 2014 that will be held in Taiwan.

IOI is the most prestigious high school programming competitions in the world. It is organized under the patronage of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). IOI is the fourth oldest among the Science Olympiads for high school students. Even though the competition is among high school students, the standard is extremely high and the problems in the IOI would challenge even the top professional programmers.

Official website of IOI:

Date and Time

The competition will take place on 18 September 2013, from 3.00pm to 4.30pm.


The competition is to be administered directly at your school, simultaneously with all the other participating schools.

During registration, a Teacher-in-Charge should be appointed by each participating school. The Teacher-in-Charge is responsible for registering the participants, paying the registration fee, safekeeping the competition package, administering the competition, and returning the answer scripts to the MCC 2013 Secretariat for processing.

Competition Procedure

  1. Complete the Registration Form and submit your registration along with the payment. Only teachers or lecturers should do the registration.
  2. Once received, we will confirm your registration via email within 3 working days.
  3. One week before the competition, we will courier the competition package. The Teacher-in-Charge is responsible to safe-keep the package until competition day.
  4. On competition day, the Teacher-in-Charge will administer the test according to the instructions given in the competition package.
  5. After the competition, the Teacher-in-Charge will sign the honor code and return the answer scripts to the MCC 2013 Secretariat.
  6. In approximately one month, the results will be announced and the certificates will be mailed to the schools.


The MCC is open to all Malaysian students and international students studying in Malaysia who (i) have not enrolled in university, and (ii) are born later than 18 September 1993. In particular, students in Malaysian public and private schools/colleges are eligible to enter.

Format and Sample Questions

The MCC is an individual written exam that covers math and logical problems related to algorithms and programming. Students are required to write only the answers to the questions.

The time given is 1 hour 30 minutes (3.00pm to 4.30pm).

Students are not allowed to use a calculator. The only instruments allowed are pencil/pen, eraser, and rough paper. No computer programming experience is necessary.

You may download a sample paper and the actual MCC 2012 paper:

MCC Sample Problems

MCC 2012 paper (note: the time given for MCC 2012 is 1 hour; whereas the time given for MCC 2013 is 1 hour 30 minutes.)

There are some sample papers (with solutions) on the Australian Informatics Competition website:

Categories and Awards

There are three categories for the MCC:

  1. Bongsu / Junior – Form 1, 2, 3
  2. Muda / Intermediate – Form 4, 5
  3. Sulung / Senior – Form 6 (lower & upper), Pre-U (Matriculation, Foundation Studies, IB, A-Levels, etc.)

All students will sit for the same paper, but prizes will be awarded by category. Primary school students who are interested can also take part in the Bongsu category.

There will be individual and team prizes. Individual prizes are Gold, Silver, Bronze and Honorable Mention awards. The best performing five students in each category will automatically be in the school’s team. Teams are ranked according to the total of their individual scores. Team prizes are also Gold, Silver, Bronze and Honorable Mention awards.

Please consider sending at least five students per category. This would allow your school to qualify for a team prize.


The registration fee for MCC 2013 is RM 15 per participant, or RM 12 per participant if there are 31 or more participants from one school.

Beyond MCC

The MCC is the preliminary selection process of a year-long program to identify and train the top programming talents in Malaysian schools.

The top scorers in MCC will be invited to participate in the Malaysian Computing Olympiad (MCO), a real-time C++ programming competition, to be held tentatively in March 2014. A seminar will be held at KICT, IIUM, tentatively in December 2013 to explain about the MCO in more details to the invited participants.

The top scorers in MCO will be called for a series of intensive training camps conducted by former IOI participants. Students who qualify at this level will participate in Asia Pacific Informatics Olympiad (APIO), an annual online contest among countries in the Pacific Rim region. Official website of APIO:

After the training camps and APIO, the best four students will be selected to represent Malaysia in IOI 2014 which will take place in Taiwan on 13-20 July 2014. Official website of IOI 2014:

The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge by A. Flexner

25 August 2013

Great read. In PDF:

(from Harpers, Issue 179, June/November 1939)

IOI & IMO 2013

22 August 2013

I apologized for not reporting these news earlier. I just updated the IMO and IOI pages.

The Malaysian team did very well at the olympiads this year.

First, the IOI. The Star has the story:

Two Malaysians bag historic silver at International Olympiad in Informatics


Tham Ying Hong (left) and How Si Yu pose with their medals.

KUALA LUMPUR: Two Malaysians created history when they bagged silver medals at the International Olympiad in Informatics (IOI) 2013.

How Si Yu and Tham Ying Hong, both 18, each won a silver medal at the IOI 2013, which is the world’s most prestigious algorithmic computer programming competition, that was held recently in Brisbane, Australia.

How said he was reaching for more medals and will be competing at the International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO) 2013 at Santa Marta, Colombo [should be Colombia. –SR] on Friday.

How and his twin, Si Wei, will be representing Malaysia for the fourth time at IMO 2013, which is the top mathematics competition in the world, along with four other students.

They have won gold, silver and bronze medals in the previous editions of the IMO.

“I hope to win gold again this year but it depends on the types of problems,” said Si Yu.

Malaysian Informatics and Programming Society president Dr. Ong Shien Jin, who brought the team to the competition, said he was very proud of the students.

“We brought four students to compete who were selected out of more than 300 students and we have improved tremendously since last year,” he said.

Ong explained that Malaysia ranked in the bottom quarter in its debut last year but was placed a good 28 out of 80 teams this year.

Tham, who won three medals in the previous editions of IMO, announced that he was retiring from the competition this year as he will be studying computer science at Stanford University this September.

“There is a lot of problem-solving in mathematics but programming involves solving real-world problems,” said Tham who was introduced to programming by Ong.

Current secondary school students who are inspired by Tham and Si Yu’s success can find out more about representing the country in the future IOI by referring to


And then of course, the IMO. One of the contestants, Justin, did a nice writeup on his IMO experience, reproduced here with his permission:


IMO 2013, by Justin Lim Kai Ze

Santa Marta is a city tucked away at the southern part of Colombia, one of the major tourist destinations on the Colombian Caribbean. There’s nothing not touristy about the place: the scorching sun pulls the people out of their homes and onto the beautiful beaches from beautiful daybreaks to majestic sunsets. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are all accompanied by good Colombian coffee and the soothing sound of waves crashing from the sea.

If not tourism, what else could explain why 500 students crossed oceans and continents to congregate in this touristic hotspot? As always, mathematics provides the answer. On the 18 – 28th of July, Santa Marta welcomed high school students from 97 countries to participate in the 54th International Mathematical Olympiad. Each country sends six representatives to do battle for two days; not among themselves, but to face 6 math problems to be solved over 9 hours.

It’s the world’s largest party of teenage mathematicians across the globe, a festival of young people who think, breathe, and dream mathematics. And it’s not the boring math that we’re so sick and tired of – the Olympiad has previously posed questions about windmills, grasshoppers and liar’s guessing games. These are problems that the average person can read and understand, but solving them takes remarkable insight and intelligence.

Making our presence known

Malaysia has participated in the International Mathematical Olympiad since 1995, and the results have been improving quickly. Before 2008, we averaged ranks of 60 to 70. This year, we reached our highest-ever rank of 31 with a cumulative score of 117, tied with Hong Kong. 17 of our 22 medals have come from the past 6 years, 10 of these won in 2012 and 2013 alone. The team brought back the nation’s first gold medal in 2011.

There are a few clear reasons for these achievements. In 2007, past Olympians Mr Suhaimi Ramly and Mr Ikhwan Azlan returned to the IMO program to coach the national team. Effective 2010, ExxonMobil began sponsoring the national team’s intensive training program which includes training materials and workshops, as well as participation in several international pre-IMO competitions. The preparatory programs help boost the team’s confidence and readiness for the actual competition.

The road to IMO

The road to the Malaysian team is long and winding. From the National Mathematical Olympiad held annually by the Malaysian Mathematical Sciences Society, students are whittled down via four training camps and selection tests.  The roughly 10000 students are filtered down into 200, then 60, then 24, then 12, before a final test that determines the final team of six people. The process begins in July with the national competition, and the final six are announced in May. It’s a gruelling process, especially for the ones that make the final twelve, only to fail at the final hurdle.

No one knows this feeling better than Khong Yi Kye, a Form Five student from SMJK Sin Min, Kedah. In 2010, 2011, and 2012, he found himself in the final round of twelve, yet missed the final cut. He was victorious this year, however, producing solid performances in each of the selection tests to emerge as a clear candidate for the team. Also entering the team for the first time is Shazryl Shafyz b. Zulrushdi from SMK USJ 12, Selangor, who made it on his second try.

The rest of the team, however, all have experience at the IMO. Twin brothers How Si Yu and How Si Wei from Selangor are returning to the IMO for the 4th time, with 5 medals between them, including Malaysia’s first gold. Anzo Teh Zhao Yang, a student from SMJK Chung Ling Butterworth, Penang, is on his 3rd trip to the IMO, having won a silver medal in 2012. Rounding up the team is I, also on my 3rd try.

The ‘chosen six’ then go through an extended series of training. IMO training is no joke: I distinctly remember that the first piece of advice I received before my first IMO was ‘stock up on Panadol…” Team members go through 20 mock IMO tests to simulate the actual exam, each paper with 3 problems lasting 4.5 hours each. As we grill ourselves through these countless exams, the team grows closer together: we start to talk more, learn more about each other, and the bond between us gradually grows far beyond just the word ‘teammate’. The weeks fly by, and before I knew it, I was at the airport waving goodbye to my family.

Colombia is -5 on Greenwich Mean Time, and Malaysia is +8. Do the math: that’s a 13-hour time difference between the two countries. This meant two things: long journeys and massive jetlag. And the journey was long indeed: our route included transits in Amsterdam, Panama City and Barranquilla before arriving at our destination, spanning over two days of travel.

After the hellos and how-are-you’s that surrounds the lively atmosphere on arrival day, we headed to the city of Barranquilla for the opening ceremony of the 54th International Mathematical Olympiad. This year’s theme was the Carnival of Barranquilla, one of the largest carnivals in the world. Graced by the presence of the mayor of Barranquilla, the Minister of Education and other notable people, their speeches were followed by a parade of the 97 teams from around the world. Accompanied by dancers from the carnival, each team takes the stage one by one, waving their national flags in a display of pride and excitement. But behind the infectious joy at the ceremony lay a sense of responsibility, and for good measure, because the very next day was competition day, and this opening ceremony was a good reminder of the burden that lies on every competitor’s shoulders – to do well as ambassadors of our countries. We returned to the hotel with a new sense of purpose, a precursor for the challenge tomorrow…

IMO team in colombia

And so it begins

“You may begin now.” A voice echoes around the hold, followed immediately by the scuffling and shuffling of the contestants as they begin their assault on Day One. Heart pounding, I read through the 3 problems. I felt my breathing start to ease when I saw that the last problem was on geometry. Considering that geometry was my strong suit, this may be a good paper for me. If I managed to solve the first two problems quickly enough, I may even get a perfect score today.

“Time’s up. Please stop writing and put your solutions into their respective folders…” Four and a half hours later, I walked out of the contest hall feeling slightly ruffled. I hadn’t found a solution for the geometry problem. On the flipside, I had solved the other two problems, which meant that it was still a decent performance overall.

Walking into the sea of students, I found my teammates excitedly discussing their solutions. “We got the first two,” Anzo told me, gesturing to the twins. I got the same! This meant a pretty good overall performance on Day One. I started discussing my solution for Problem 2 with Si Wei. “Just induction: I extended it to the case where there are even numbers of points, and the answer is the same,” I explained. He looked confused and told me that I was wrong. “No, it must be correct,” I insisted.

Halfway through the debate, I suddenly realized that we were talking about different problems. Heart pounding, I read the problem again…and again, and again. Si Wei was right. I had misread the problem. I held my head in my hands, speechless for a minute, and tried to get over the fact that I had just virtually thrown away a shot at a silver or gold medal.

I recovered quickly, and I felt good on the morning of Day 2. When the clock started ticking, I read the questions twice this time around to prevent any further catastrophe. The first question was a geometry question, which was good, although I’d have preferred it to be the second problem. No matter. I took out my geometry tools and sketched the diagram. I drew two circles and thought for a few seconds before marking an intersection point. And then everything became blatantly obvious. I glanced at the clock: 5 minutes. Fantastic. I wrote my solution and moved on to the second problem of the day.

Fast forward to the end of the exam and I was on the verge of pulling my hair out. I couldn’t solve it. I walked out of the exam hall feeling downcast, although the news that Si Yu and Anzo had both solved two problems cheered me up considerably. The contest was now over, and it was time to have fun!

“The IMO begins now.”

Although the International Mathematical Olympiad is, as the name implies, a mathematical competition, no one actually works on math after the competition. Why would we? There was just too many interesting people to talk to, too many people to shake hands with, too many people to play with…The IMO was a time for release, for us to have fun, to talk, sing and dance after a year of work.

A particular treat came one afternoon when we heard the news that Harald Helfgott was coming to give a lecture. “Are you serious?” I kept asking our guide. Harald Helfgott was a mathematician who had recently made headlines by proving the Weak Goldbach Conjecture, a notoriously difficult problem in number theory. Along with other lectures on a variety of topics, such as MATLAB and tilings, the organizers kept us entertained – not an easy task to accomplish with 500 teenagers from around the world.

Before we knew it, two days had passed. Halfway through a game of Mafia with the Indonesian contingent, someone exclaimed that the official results had been released. The game was dropped completely as we scrambled to check on our final rankings. We finished at rank 31, winning two silver medals and three bronze medals. It was a particularly emotional moment for the Indonesians, as they had just won their first gold medal in history – a milestone Malaysia had recently passed in 2011. Words of congratulations were heard all around the room as we celebrated each others’ victories.

The closing ceremony was an outdoor affair, held at the place at which the legendary Simon Bolivar died. As the medal went around my neck, I forgot all about my disappointment at the unfortunate accident on the first day. I turned around and smiled as the applause erupted from 500 other young mathematicians, in a beautiful show of mutual respect and friendship.

And that was it. The IMO was over. I am now back home in Malaysia, and my heart still skips a little whenever one of my new friends send me a friend request on Facebook…


13 August 2013

Learn the basics of programming with a simple game (level 10 is not so simple!):

(hat tip: Shien Jin)

Travel photos

4 August 2013

As my friends would know, I don’t like to take photos during my trips and I don’t like to be in photos. However, I do feel obliged to take a few photos back to show to my family. I don’t have a lot of them, only about 4-5 photos per country. Many of them were taken by other people.

Here are some of the interesting ones, in no particular order:

IMG_1844Hanging out and shisha with friends, Sarajevo, Bosnia, 2011

IMG_1961Some artisanal shops, Sarajevo, Bosnia, 2011

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWine sodap, Protaras Beach, Cyprus, 2012

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASelepas wine yang sodap, aiskrim yang pahit, Protaras Beach, Cyprus, 2012

IMG_1987Masjid Al-Aqsa, Jerusalem, 2012

IMG_2057Dinner hosted by ExxonMobil Kazakhstan, Astana, Kazakhstan, 2010

IMG_2064Pizza and pasta, Podgorica, Montenegro, 2011

IMG_2068Filthy gypsy kid asking me to buy candy that she probably shoplifted from somewhere, Pristina, Kosovo, 2011

IMG_2135Waiting for Iftar at the Old City, Skopje, Macedonia, 2011

IMG_2190Trying out the Adana Kebab, Istanbul, Turkey, 2011

P1010290Gondola ride, Venice, Italy, 2011

P1010374Mud volcano, The Apennines, Italy, 2011

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANobel Museum, Stockholm, Sweden, 2013

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMy humble abode for one week, Lake Garda, Italy, 2012

DSCN5760Malaysia IMO team hanging out at the Carribean coast, Santa Marta, Colombia, 2013

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