Not All About Numbers

Melanie Wood '03
June 1, 2003


Melanie Wood, a published mathematician, sees the world in shapes. She is fascinated by them. Abstract notions such as the concept of "topological space," the idea that shapes are deformable, that a circle is the same as a square is the same as a triangle, depending on how one expands or compresses it, are of everyday concern to her. She cares little for numbers, though. They are not her passion. They are simply symbols of something greater, small representatives of the larger, more intricate whole. "It's silly," she says, "to think that mathematicians deal with numbers. They deal with structures. All of math is structures."

Melanie Wood '03

 Photo: Les Todd


But several numbers are of particular significance to Wood. Hers was one of the top five scores out of a thousand in the sixty-third annual William Lowell Putnam Mathematical Competition, regarded as the most prestigious of its kind. And Wood is the first American woman and only the second woman in the world to be named a Fellow of the Mathematical Association of America, the organization that administers the competition. Also notable are the numbers twenty-one, her age, and two, her math jersey number, just recently retired in her honor at a ceremony in the physics building. "Two is the simplest number with plenty of structure to be studied. That's why I'm number two," she says.

David Kraines, associate professor of mathematics, told The Chronicle that Wood's score on the Putnam was "extremely rare" and that it is "incredibly difficult to score so high." Contestants are given six hours to solve twelve problems that, though they require no knowledge of theorems or formulas and are written in more or less plain English, are the epitome of complexity, convoluted to the point of absurdity.

" It's a sprint," says Wood, who describes herself as "not a real fast thinker." She is not the human-calculator sort. She cannot glance at a page full of numbers and find a code or instantly add up numbers in her head. "I'm a slow, methodical, deep thinker," she says. "I'm a creative thinker." She characterizes herself as "fairly normal," for a math person. "I don't know any of the digits past 3.14 in pi. I don't program games on my calculator. Generally speaking, when I'm not talking about math, I don't give off the geek stuff."

Wood says she doesn't know exactly what she scored on the Putnam because, as a policy, officials do not release the top five scores, but she knows that hers, along with the other Fellows', falls somewhere between 96 and 116. The median score on the test this year was 3.

Apart from making math history at Duke, Wood divided her time between producing and directing plays. She produced The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Hoof 'n' Horn's fall production. She also assisted in the direction of Macbeth, doing most of the voice and text work. "Math is so solitary and inward, and all I use is my analytical mind. It's a great relief to use the body and voice and emotion in theater. It's so different," she says.

Having been awarded both a Fulbright Scholarship and the Gates Cambridge Scholarship, Wood has a rare problem on her hands. She has to decide which scholarship she's going to use to study at Cambridge next year. After that, she's fairly certain of the path. She'll work toward her Ph.D. at Princeton and then go on to do research. "My goal is to become a research mathematician. I'm interested in pure math: math for the sake of math."