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Originally published Friday, April 9, 2010 at 3:38 PM

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Brains, talent, hard work add up to a rare academic honor

William Johnson is the first University of Washington student to be named a Putnam Fellow, for excelling in a national mathematical competition.

WILLIAM Johnson, a University of Washington mathematics and computer-science major, is the pride of the university, his hometown Kenmore and Inglemoor High School. He is the absolute, undisguised envy of a lot of very smart people around the globe.

Johnson will be known forever and all time as a Putnam Fellow, a winner of The William Lowell Putnam Mathematical Competition, hosted every December by The Mathematical Association of America.

This is an extraordinary achievement with the capacity to delight the rest of us who are puzzled by Venn diagrams and subject to arithmetical second-guessing by the Internal Revenue Service.

He placed among the top five out of 4,000 students who dared test themselves against the nation's finest collegiate academic all-stars. The highest possible score is 120 points, and most competitors earn fewer than 10. Johnson is thought to have scored in the 100-point range.

The fearsome essence of the challenge is summarized on the Putnam Web site: "The examination will be constructed to test originality as well as technical competence." Beyond adroitly recalling what they have been taught, the best and brightest must apply what they have learned.

Johnson is the first UW student to be named a Putnam Fellow, an academic appellation that will follow him through his professional career. Not unlike college freshmen swapping SAT scores in the dorm, any random group of mathematicians will sort itself by Putnam scores.

Johnson's tenacious brain power and academic strengths were groomed for glory by two faculty stars, Ioana Dumitriu, an assistant professor of mathematics, who was the first woman named a Putnam Fellow, and Julia Pevtsova, another assistant professor, who was a silver medalist in the International Mathematical Olympiad.

Johnson's family, university, faculty mentors, and indeed his community and state can all take enormous pride in his hard work and prodigious capabilities. This is a rare achievement to be celebrated.

Here is a sample problem to get a sense of the competition:

Players 1, 2, 3, n are seated around a table and each has a single penny. Player 1 passes a penny to Player 2, who then passes two pennies to Player 3. Player 3 then passes one penny to Player 4, who passes two pennies to Player 5, and so on, players alternately passing one penny or two to the next player who still has some pennies. A player who runs out of pennies drops out of the game and leaves the table. Find an infinite set of numbers n for which some player ends up with all n pennies.

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