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Eton Press Maths Final 2006

They called it “fourth equal”. There is no “last place” here; we are not allowed to know our scores so that we can figure it out. So, I’m unable to report on whether or not I achieved my goal of not coming last.

What I did get, though, was a copy of The Story of Mathematics and a consolation prize of fifty dollars. And another two pens with “Eton Press Senior Mathematics Competition” printed on them (so I now have three). Meh. Would never have dreamed of the four-hundred-dollar third-place prize anyway.

What was infinitely more exciting was the visit to the University of Canterbury. With an excelling engineering school (or so I hear), they are, I suppose, eager to attract some of New Zealand’s top mathematicians; hence the “come to Canterbury” packages, not too different from the ones we got at January’s maths camp. This visit, though, included a trip to the high voltage laboratory, a demonstration of the “chaotic pendulum”, and a presentation of some aspects of computer science.

The high voltage laboratory was, in the words of the guy who worked there, “quite safe, as long as you know what you’re doing”. Note to self: don’t touch anything that looks like a conductor. The voltages in the laboratory were around 120 kilovolts, and there was nothing except air between us and the equipment, though the scientist played with them quite freely. It can scare you (I don’t think I need to mention that 120 kilovolts is several hundred times more than enough to kill you), but the displays are worth it. The final display produced a funny smell which we learnt to be ozone. Five of us also climbed into a metal cage while the cage was brought to 120 kilovolts above ground. (Don’t worry, the cage was well insulated from ground, so none of us died. The guy said that it was safer to be inside the cage than outside of it. When you think about it, this makes sense.)

The chaotic pendulum was in the maths department. It consists of a sort of double-pendulum: one end of one beam is fixed; the other is connected to another beam which hangs freely from the first. It’s pretty cool to watch. Its movement is impossible to predict, and the second beam would swivel around completely every so often, seemingly at will.

The computer scientists was studying a PhD in human-computer interfaces. You know, the whole, why do you have to click the “start” button to stop (shut down) your computer? My favourite was the error message, “Disk error: one or more files could not be retrieved”, followed by a button which said “OK”. Okay? No, if you can’t access your files, that’s not okay! His alternative, to have two buttons: “OK” and “Not OK”. They might do the same thing, but the human will feel okay about clicking it. He says they sent the ideas to Microsoft, who weren’t too impressed.

The weather was remarkably warm for a Christchurch winter day. The sun shone through almost all of the day, so there was no need to shiver through the day (and yes, I did expect otherwise). Only half the finalists were maths camp attendees; three of these, of course, formed the three placegetters. It was, therefore, a chance to meet some familiar faces and some new ones, although what kinda happened was the familiar faces stuck together more. Whether I was the worst mathematician in Christchurch is arguable, though I can confidently say I was the worst of the camp attendees.

Anyway, having evaded two-thirds of an English assessment in formal writing, and a rather bumpy flight home, I’m now fifty dollars, a book and two pens richer. Not bad for only completing half the paper.

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