This week, two press releases from the Institute:

The first was on the sequencing of the woodland strawberry genome (unfortunately, in the same week the cacao genome was sequenced). The Institute scientists who participated in the project contributed in the computational analysis of genes encoding flavor- and aroma-related proteins.

This wild cousin of the cultivated strawberry is a member of the rose family, along with fruit trees including apples, peaches, cherries and almonds. In other words, this small annual plant is sure to become a useful experimental model for plant and agricultural research.

It does, of course raise the question of gene transfer: If we could put the flavor and aroma that we’ve bred out of cultivated strawberries back in, should we do so? After all, woodland strawberries (along with their DNA) are perfectly edible, and those “dangerous” genes that might escape into the wild will cross with what? Woodland strawberries?


The second was of more local interest, but the questions it raises are no less relevant. To make the Israeli high school math team to next summer’s International Mathematical Olympiad more competitive, a new program is being instituted that includes online lessons tailored to each potential team member — complete with individual coaching — several week-long training camps and intense competition for spots on the team in a ruthless winnowing process that began with 350 participants in the national math Olympiad and will end with seven.

We will just note here that in 2008, the Israeli team won one gold, one silver and two bronze medals plus two citations in this competition. The last two years, apparently, the team from our tiny country has not done as well. While the hand-wringing that seems to have led to the new program may or may not be justified, the question remains: Should math be a “sport” — like Olympic swimming or basketball? Should kids have to begin early and practice rigorously in order to compete? Is this what we have to do to remain in the game with the ultra-disciplined teams from countries like Korea or those from China, where the pool of potential math geniuses is approximately 150 times the size of Israel’s? Or, is it just possible that there really is some added value from this sort of intensive immersion in a single discipline – one that will pay off at some point in the future in the ability to compete (nationally and individually) in the global arena?

Comments

  1. #1 Samantha Vimes
    December 29, 2010

    Well, a child prodigy in math or science who is rigorously trained in it with the kind of support and rewards atheletes get might actually solve some problems and end up making a more significant contribution to the world in time than holding an RBI record for a few years. Math and science have meaning, whereas sports are simply entertainment.

    Mmmm. More nutritious (because flavor and flavinoids seem to go together) strawberries. What’s not to like?

  2. #2 Samantha Vimes
    December 29, 2010

    Well, a child prodigy in math or science who is rigorously trained in it with the kind of support and rewards atheletes get might actually solve some problems and end up making a more significant contribution to the world in time than holding an RBI record for a few years. Math and science have meaning, whereas sports are simply entertainment.

    Mmmm. More nutritious (because flavor and flavinoids seem to go together) strawberries. What’s not to like?

  3. #3 Birger Johansson
    December 29, 2010

    Various (non-strawberry) flavonids seem to protect against Alzheimer’s disease. If we can put them into strawberries without altering the taste too much, I say go for it.

    Also, what about the substance in red wine that is good for cardiovascular health ? Put it in strawberries, and we can cut down on the sauce.

  4. #4 HFM
    December 29, 2010

    I was an Olympiad competitor (and now I’m a coach), so I’ve seen quite a few people go through programs of this sort.

    First: “Should kids have to begin early and practice rigorously in order to compete? Is this what we have to do to remain in the game with the ultra-disciplined teams from countries like Korea or those from China…”

    Practically, yes. If you want to win, that’s how you do it. That’s what happens in China, Korea et al…that’s why they’re so good.

    Of course, this assumes that a country should care about winning enough to devote significant national resources to it. Yes, there’s national pride and all that – but how many people really know how good/bad the Israeli math team is? (The Olympiads make spectacularly poor TV…)

    Then there’s the argument from “national competitiveness”. I’ve used it myself, and actually there might be some truth to it. I don’t think it’s as simple as making people productive faster – does it really matter if your top mathematicians are ready to do independent work at 25 instead of 30?

    Rather, there is some benefit in giving that youthful enthusiasm somewhere to go. We used to say, only half-jokingly, that the Olympiads were a government conspiracy to keep people like us busy. Time we spent problem-solving was time we didn’t spend hacking the Pentagon or building a death ray in the basement. More realistically, it’s time we didn’t spend bored and miserable, or loafing around on WoW, or worse. And it gave us concrete markers of accomplishment to wave at people who thought we were wasting our time, and that we really should go join the cross-country and debate teams, lest our resume be too short to get us into college.

    As for future prospects – in my experience, my Olympiad background makes it easier to do interdisciplinary work. A significant minority don’t major in their strongest event. I didn’t. Instead, I majored in something complementary, and am now doing research that brings the two together. Also, the nature of the exams forces you to have a very broad foundation. It doesn’t teach you how to do research, but it puts the raw materials in your brain, so you can look at problems from different perspectives. This has saved me more than once.

    I do think these programs are a good thing. If you run them right, they can promote education for a broader group – even if someone isn’t going to make the IMO, they can learn some basic strategies and improve their score on the first-round exams. It’s not going to make someone a genius, but it can give a young geek something constructive to do. (Olympiad skills are teachable; genius helps, and compulsiveness helps more, but it’s all in the training.)

  5. #5 madarab
    December 30, 2010

    Making math a competitive sport is a excellent way for a socity to not only increase its ability in mathematics, but also to improve its science and engineering capacity. It is especially useful if you can show poor people that math is a way out of poverty, rather than relying on a sports and entertainment driven culture.

  6. #6 adsense hack
    February 5, 2011

    Also, what about the substance in red wine that is good for cardiovascular health ? Put it in strawberries, and we can cut down on the sauce.