Interview With Peter McNamara


Every year about 90 countries send teams of their six best high school students to participate in the International Mathematical Olympiad, a grueling mathematics competition in which contestants sit two exams of four and a half hours each over two days solving a total of six problems. Needless to say, these problems are of an exceedingly high level of difficulty and coming up with solutions requires exceptional ingenuity and mathematical ability.

In this issue we speak to a young mathematician with an enviable reputation in the IMO. In 2001 Peter McNamara became the first Australian to ever win two gold medals in IMO competitions. He is one of the select few who have been to three IMOs (he obtained a bronze medal in his first appearance). In this issue of Paradox, we interview Peter to find out what makes him tick.

Peter enjoys a game of table tennis in the MIT basement at 2am

Peter enjoys a game of table tennis in the MIT basement at 2am

got some time for an interview for paradox?

For the record, what is your full name?

Peter James McNamara

Is there any significance to your name? were you named after anyone famous?

Not that I know of.

What is your favourite colour?

I don’t have a favourite colour. It used to be red because I was in red faction at primary school.

So… Peter… tell us… why are you in Melbourne?

A Holiday? I have to physically be somewhere don’t I?

Are you enjoying this holiday?

Yes, Melbourne is a nice city to be in, even if it can get a little cold at times.

Ok… moving right along… Tell us about your educational background

Well I finished a science degree with honours in Mathematics at the University of Sydney in 2005. Prior to that, I was at school in Perth.

Ok, while you were growing up, did you have any heroes? Y’know, somone who you really looked up to and who inspired you?

I don’t think I ever really looked up to any heroes.

what was primary and secondary school like for you? Did you find it very easy or very difficult?

I usually found myself on top of things at school, there weren’t many difficulties. I don’t know if that says more about me or about the educational system though.

well then, I know that you know that I know this, but tell the loyal readers of paradox – what are your plans for the immediate future? (education-wise)

Many readers of paradox will also already know this, but I’m off to MIT to pursue a PhD in pure mathematics, starting Septermber 2006.

Ah… what exactly made you pick MIT?

Well, they are a good university. Being in close proximity to Harvard was also an attracting factor, since the two universities have arrangements where you can do classes at either, and even be supervised by faculty members from the other university. It also helps that I have a couple of friends in Boston too.

sounds like a good deal, what are your plans (if indeed you have any) for when you return to Australia (if indeed you plan to do so)?

I don’t actually have any plans for that time, it is currently a long way into the future and I’m sure a lot will happen between now and then.

I won’t forget about the readers of Paradox though.

Ok, now for people who are considering a similar course of study, was the process of getting into and organising to go to MIT a difficult one? Are there any common pitfalls that one should avoid?

I can only speak about entry into US universities, but if someone wants to go to the united states to study, they’re going to have to start seriously looking into the entire application procedure a good twelve months in advance. The actual applications are due in about 8-9 months in advance, and there are some required tests which must be completed prior to that.

Make sure you’re organised and know all the key dates.

ok… now onto the topic which I think all of our readers really want to hear about… the IMO. Tell us about your first experience at the IMO

Well the IMO was a big event. I guess the first experience was arriving off the plane in Romania and meeting our guide, if I want to be pedantic.

, Alina.

was she hot?

Trust you to ask that Daniel. I’ve only got pictures in Perth, so I can’t get you to judge for yourself.

oh well… moving right along…

Do any IMOs stand out as your ‘favourites’?

Well being in Romania was really enjoyable. It was well organised, all the students were staying in the one building, which is best for the social side of things, and Europe is a great place to visit.

Do you have any stand-out memorable moments from any of the IMOs? interesting games or pranks?

In Romania we managed to steal a stuffed kiwi from the New Zealanders, which was their mascot, and ended up going to the room above them (occupied by the neutral swiss) and hanging (with our best approximation to a noose) the unfortunate flightless bird from their window to dangle outside the Kiwi’s.

I guess with Cheeseman around in Romania, that is the most likely time for pranks

we all know that you were the first australian to ever win two gold medals at the IMO… when you found out that you had won your second, did you have any special feelings of exhiliration… or was it just “oh yeah, that’s pretty cool”?

Well it was a good feeling to have done so well. I knew I had done well in the exam and was looking at a gold medal that year so it wasn’t really a suprise when I eventually heard the results. It still was great to have managed to be the first from this country to achieve such a feat.

did you ever feel alot of pressure… representing Australia and all?

I don’t remember feeling under much pressure. It was a fun time, and yes there were nerves around but I tended to cope with those allright. Perhaps the chant of “Aussie Aussie Aussie, Oi Oi Oi” we made before each exam helped calm the nerves.

I’ve heard that after your third IMO’s closing ceremony you got to meet another famous past Australian IMO representative – Terry Tao. What was that like?

It was a bit like “um, I don’t really know what to say”. All I can really remember is shaking his hand and getting my photo taken with him.

what do you feel is the most important thing you took out of the IMO?

Oh, that’s a hard question. The sort of things that one takes out are generally intangible things, such as appreciation of mathematics and culture, memories and friendships. On the tangible side, that is where the game of gluck got introduced into MUMS circles from.

Ok, lightening up a little… Has your mathematical reputation and/or ability ever been useful in a real-life situation such as picking up at a nightclub? getting good seats at the football?

Us mathematicians unfortunately don’t get the rock star treatment at night clubs, or the corporate connections to get good tickets to the footy, though it’s probably about time that we did!

I have come across people knowing about my mathematical feats before i knew them though.

now, on the flip side of that, have you ever felt the need (for social reasons or otherwise) to conceal your mathematical abilities?

Well I’m not really that good at maths anyway. My differential geometry is terrible. I don’t go around shouting out that I’m a good mathematician though, that would be a case of hubris.

while we’re on the topic of maths… do you have a favourite theorem or lemma?

I don’t have a favourite theorem or lemma. It’s more the beautiful proofs that attract my appreciation.

any particularly beautiful proofs which stand out?

off the top of my head, I can think of a couple of number theoretic proofs which stand out – a topological proof of the infinity of primes, and a bizarre involution proof of the two squares theorem, both of which are in “proofs from the book” incidentally.

where do you see yourself in 10 years time?

apart from having a phd, given that i couldn’t say anything about what i’d do after that, i guess all i can restrict myself to is that i shall be somewhere on the surface of this planet.

have you ever felt pressured to pursue mathematics at uni and/or as a career, or have your choices so far in that regard been entirely your own?

I’ve always chosen myself what I’ve wanted to study and pursue.

Do you have any regrets, mathematical or otherwise?

I don’t think it is possible to live a life without having any regrets at all.

so can you pinpoint one or two which stand out in your mind?

I don’t really know if I could give a fully honest answer to a question like that. Maybe when I am an old codger and it no longer matters to me what reaction I get when leaking information then I’d open up more.

I did make an elementary mistake in the inaugural final of the PI chess tournament which I never recovered from

If you weren’t about to go to MIT to do a PhD, what do you think you would be doing instead?

If I wasn’t doing maths, then I don’t know what I’d be doing. If I still was doing maths, then I’d be doing a PhD at either Melbourne Uni or ANU. Probably after an overseas holiday.

tell us about your interests and hobbies outside of maths

I’m a keen follower and player of cricket and football, probably a better footballer than cricketer, despite my size. I haven’t been able to play cricket for a couple of years though because of frequent summer interstate travel. I guess that is a sacrifice of living interstate.

I also enjoy playing good games; pool, diplomacy, bartog, chess (when I’m not in the mood that it is a mathematically trivial deterministic game), gluck to name a few.

what is your favourite board game?

diplomacy, by a fair margin.

If you knew that the world was going to end in exactly 48 hours and there was nothing you could do about it, what would you do with the remaining time you had?

Well I’d have to work really hard to prove the Riemann Hypothesis then. If I had any spare time, then it would be off to work on the Birch and Swinnerton-Dyer conjecture.

Do you have a favourite band?

It changes over time. I’ve actually tended to like bands from Western Australia, such as Jebediah, Eskimo Joe, Little Birdy and Fourth Floor Collapse. Oh, and there is that recent discovery of mine, The Klein Four.

Favourite food?


Preferably a chocolatey cake, with a dash of liqueur

do you have a favourite TV show?

I like Coupling (the first three seasons) and Family Guy. Being part of the Simpsons generation, the early Simpsons episodes can never be discounted either. I don’t actually watch that many shows on TV though.

favourite film(s)?

Not sure if there is a standout there, but I’ll throw up a few names to be a good sport. The Ring, Kill Bill 1.

now one for the ladies out there reading this interview – are you single?

Isn’t that well known around MUMS? The answer is no. Actually the readership of Paradox would be predominantly male, so in a bid to attract more female readers, perhaps consideration could be given to interviewing some eligible mathematical bachelors for future issues.

…and finally, what is the air speed velocity of an unladen swallow?

A European or an African swallow?

I don’t know that!

ok, thanks very much for the interview Peter, lastly… do you have any questions for me?

No worries mate,

Shouldn’t you have been hurled into an abyss with that last statement though?

how do you know I wasn’t?

I can see you.

D’oh… [interview ends]

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