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Byline: Mark Baker The Register-Guard

Of course he wanted to win. "But second place isn't too shabby," South Eugene High School senior Eric Larson said by cell phone Monday from New York's LaGuardia Airport.

Especially in a prestigious national competition that began with 1,893 entries.

Larson, 17, took second place in the national Siemens Competition in Math, Science & Technology at New York University over the weekend. He was awarded a $50,000 scholarship for his research that classifies certain fusion categories of mathematics, a recently discovered type of algebraic structure with applications to areas of theoretical physics, computer science and mathematics, such as string theory, quantum computation and knot theory.

"I'm excited," said Larson, who plans to use the money to attend a university with one of the nation's top math departments. "It's a wonderful thing."

Larson is the second math whiz to come out of South Eugene in recent years, following his friend Dmitry Vaintrob, now a sophomore at Harvard University, who won the national Siemens competition in 2006. Larson's math mentor since the sixth grade has been Arkady Vaintrob, Dmitry's father, and an associate math professor at the University of Oregon who accompanied Larson to New York.

"He did great," Arkady Vaintrob said, also by cell phone from New York before the two boarded a flight home to Eugene. "He was pretty nervous before. But once he started going, he was pretty good. He made them laugh a couple of times."

The $100,000 grand prize was won by Wen Chyan, a senior at Texas Academy of Mathematics and Science in Denton, Texas, for chemistry research on combating hospital-related infections.

Sajith Wickramasekara and Andrew Guo, both seniors at the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics in Durham, N.C., won the $100,000 grand prize in the team category for genetics research on chemotherapy.

Six individuals and six teams competed in the finals after advancing from regional competitions. Larson took first place Nov. 22 in the individual competition at the regional finals at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

The finals competition took the same format as the regionals, Larson said, with finalists giving 12-minute presentations of their work followed by a question-and-answer session behind closed doors with the judges, a panel of nationally renowned scientists and mathematicians headed by Joseph Taylor, winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1993 and a professor emeritus at Princeton University.

Larson also is an accomplished pianist. He is a four-time winner at the Oregon Junior Bach Festival. The son of two music professors at the UO, Larson said he sees a connection between music and math. "It's not like a direct connection, but they use similar parts of the brain," he said.

Asked if she understands what her son is talking about when he discusses fusion categories of mathematics, Winnie Kerner, an adjunct professor of keyboard skills, said with a laugh, "No. I don't."

A description of "fusion categories" under Larson's "bio" on the Siemens Foundation Web site says: "These extremely complex structures are a far-reaching generalization of groups, which are the algebraic structure traditionally used in mathematics to model symmetries. The main result of this project identifies and completely classifies a new class of fusion categories which, for the first time, contains non group-theoretic examples."

"I try to understand through music what I think he's doing," Kerner said.

Maybe Larson gets his math prowess from his grandfather.Edward Kerner, a theoretical physicist who taught at the University of Delaware until he was 77, published 32 articles before his death in 2002, according to a memoriam on the university's Web site. One of his last, in the Journal of Mathematical Physics in 1999, was titled, "Nonassociative Structure of Quantum Mechanics in Curved Space-time."

"They had some discussions when Eric was really young about physics and the stars and whatnot - some pretty complicated stuff," Kerner said. When he was in the sixth grade, Larson attended one of Arkady Vaintrob's "Problem-solving circles" at the UO, Kerner said. "Eric didn't really understand it all, but he was intrigued," she said.

Larson began spending hours at the UO and Vaintrob often would walk him to the bus stop as they discussed mathematical theories, Kerner said.

"(Vaintrob) just has a real interest in young people and helping them get started in math," Kerner said. The professor has guided Larson through various national workshops and competitions, she said.

As a sophomore, Larson attended the Research Experiences for Undergraduates summer program at Pennsylvania State University, and this past summer, he attended the prestigious Research Sciences Institute summer program at MIT with about 50 other top senior math students in the country.
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Title Annotation:City/Region
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Dec 9, 2008
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