Inside the Beehive
Twelve of the mightiest math minds, yet only one can reign supreme.
By Josh Kazali
On March 3rd, a stirring could be felt across campus. Perhaps it was a sine wave passing in the breeze or the chattering of chalk and graph paper. Today was an important day. For me, it was my 20th birthday. Yet for mathematicians across campus, today was the final round of the Integration Bee, an annual math competition hosted by the Columbia Mathematics Department that crowns one lucky math whiz each year as the fastest integrator this side of the Hudson. The week before, calculus professor George Dragomir sent an open invitation to the student body to prove their mettle in the first round of the Bee, where they raced to solve as many integrals as possible in one hour. From those students, the twelve best performers moved on to the final round. And so, when I could have been enjoying cake and ice cream, I instead plunged into the SEAS—where the mathematical waters run deep and murky.
I hadn’t thought about an integral, let alone solved one, since my high school calculus class. Three semesters of academic indulgence on obscure anthropology seminars and lectures on Virginia Woolf had allowed my imagination to run wild, leaving me with a romantic model of the world of advanced mathematics. I thought, of course, of Good Will Hunting: a young Matt Damon gazing at equations, his eyes lit aflame by his own manic genius; a cocky German professor standing at the helm of a packed lecture, tortured by his own limitations; flocks of M.I.T. students ogling a chalkboard where the mysterious wunderkind had performed mathematical magic. I wondered if I might bear witness to Columbia’s own wicked-smart prodigy.
I arrived at Pupin 428 ten minutes early. The pale fluorescent lights revealed an empty, windowless lecture hall, save for Professor Dragomir who, despite his solemn, steely demeanor, cued a gaudy Spotify playlist called “Pop Frequency.” I slid into a hard wooden chair and as the minutes ticked by, the Integrators trickled in. Some were silent, steeped in anxious anticipation of their impending trial, but many embodied the paradoxical confidence and nerdiness inherent to the mathlete. As friends greeted each other and compared solution strategies and short-cuts, a brewing nervous energy combined with the exciting social environment in the room, creating an atmosphere that was genuinely electric.
An Integration Bee is a duel mano a mano, wherein two competitors get two minutes to solve an integral, scribbling on the chalkboard in front of the audience (which, to my surprise, had swelled to a solid sum of over twenty spectators). When the integral was projected onto a screen, the competitors set off on their calculations and the entire room buzzed with excitement. Not only were the competitors busy solving, but everyone else in the room was also working on the problem to prove their own prowess alongside the competitors. I might have been the only person in the room writing sentences instead of derivations.
For my fellow humanities students struggling to fulfill that science requirement, a problem looked something like this:
Since this was all Greek to me, I turned to the person sitting next to me, an alternate who was subbed in and integrated until he was knocked out in the semifinals. I asked, stupidly, “How hard are these problems, really?” The answer, he said, was complicated. Some are like puzzles, where once you figure out the key, the answer unravels quickly. Others are big messes of number work that must be weeded through as fast as possible. Sometimes, working at breakneck speed, a Eureka moment turns out to be a disappointment, and it's back to the chalkboard.
If I was going to find a Will Hunting-style virtuoso here, it would be Akshat Yaparla, SEAS ’24. He met me outside of Mudd on a windy March afternoon, fresh from his office hours as a TA for computational linear algebra. I picked him out early at the Bee, not only because I recognized him from the fourteenth floor lounge in John Jay, but because he formed the center of a rowdy group of math students enthusiastically comparing solutions and strategies. Out of the many competitors, Yaparla seemed to be having the most fun. He was the one who suggested that instead of starting at the chalkboard, competitors start from behind the podium, leaping over the table to begin scrawling their answers. In our conversation a few weeks after the Bee, he spoke of the competition with more amusement than seriousness. Is this what drives the champion integrator? Is it all just fun and games?
“It’s an Integration Bee, right?” Yaparla told me. “A bunch of math people get together and do integrals at the end of the day.” Unlike the tortured genius I had imagined (or perhaps hoped for), Yaparla had no delusions of grandeur following his victory—he wore the crown with humility. Of course, don’t mistake his dismissive attitude for lack of interest in the subject; to hear him speak about his interests makes that much clear. A computer science major by trade, but a mathematician at heart, Yaparla described the feeling of solving an equation with ecstasy: “Once you solve that five hundred piece puzzle, you’re like, holy shit. I’ll get a high for like half a day.”
It’s the laurels that he claims less interest in. “It’s like, OK, cool, I have a nice scarf,” he said about his title. That’s not a metaphor, by the way—Yaparla’s prize was a blue and white scarf, with an integral and a buzzing bee hand stitched into it by Professor Dragomir. Yaparla’s biggest lesson from his career as a Mathlete: vanity and pride only detract from passion. Math, it turns out, isn’t all collaboration and sunshine. Yaparla told me that if I looked closer, I would find thick webs of egoism and competition, imbuing the stifling, subterranean air of Pupin with the stench of pride and jealousy. “That’s the part I’m not a fan of,” he said. “I don’t want this place to go M.I.T. overnight.”
I thought of the less fortunate integrators in the room that night who left without a title, retracing the steps to their fatal blows and scorned by the sense that the solution was only a few motions of chalk away. The taste of defeat is always bitter, particularly when it comes to something as personally significant to STEM majors as mathematic ingenuity. The title—silly though it may be—clearly meant more to Yaparla than he let on. When I asked him if he’d be defending his title next year, he laughed it off, but seemed to be up for the challenge. “I’ll show up there. I’ll have my scarf.”