More Than Numbers, Mathematics is the Art of Thought

Natural Sciences5 MIN READ

Thor Gabrielsen ’26 draws on creativity to rank high in a prestigious mathematics competition

Thor Gabrielsen ’26 placed in the top 400 out of 3,415 participants in this year's Putnam Mathematics Competition. Gabrielsen received the highest score out of the 10 Colby students who participated. Overall Colby ranked 92nd out of 456 participating institutions in the U.S. and Canada.
By Laura MeaderPhotography by Ashley L. Conti
April 17, 2023

Thor Gabrielsen ’26 expresses his creativity in an unconventional arena, mathematical competitions. With impressive results.

As a high school senior in 2022, Gabrielsen received the highest score in the history of the Maine Association of Math League—296—missing only one question in the five competitions that year.

In his first competition as a college student, Gabrielsen outscored all his Colby peers and placed in the top 400 of the 83rd William Lowell Putnam Mathematical Competition, one of the most prestigious mathematics competitions for undergraduates in the United States and Canada.

“An excellent result,” Professor of Mathematics Leo Livshits said of the first-year student’s performance. Especially for the notoriously difficult Putnam Competition, which is sponsored by the Mathematical Association of America.

How difficult? This year, out of a possible 120 points, the median score was one. More than half of the 3,415 undergraduates who participated in the competition—some of the nation’s best and brightest—received a score of one or zero. Gabrielsen scored 23. His high-scoring peers hail from institutions such as MIT, Harvard, Cal Tech, and Stanford.

Problem A1 on the 2022 William Lowell Putnam Mathematical Competition

The Putnam Competition is so difficult because the questions force students to use creative problem-solving, said Livshits. These problems can’t be solved by a direct approach using standard methods learned in the classroom.

“They often need to be turned just the right way. You need to find the right entry point. It’s the skill of intuition that lets you find that point,” said Livshits, who initiated Colby’s participation in the Putnam Competition in 1996, a few years after he joined the Math Department.

Frequent and ambitious competitions

Gabrielsen started participating in math competitions in middle school. As a high schooler, he finished in the number-one position with the Maine Association of Math League all four years. He learned early the need to approach competition problems differently from classroom problems, finding creative routes through each question. It’s the art of problem solving, he said.

Still, he knew the Putnam would be challenging. “My goal was to just score more than zero points.”

Before the exam, Gabrielsen reminded himself of three things: know your limits, concentrate on problems where you think you can find good answers, and remember the easiest questions tend to come first, although sometimes they’re asked further down.

Administered on campus, the Putnam exam is split into two three-hour sessions. In each session, there are six problems worth 10 points each. Scoring is strict, and unfinished work scores much less than correctly completed problems.

Problem A3 on the 2022 William Lowell Putnam Mathematical Competition

At the start of each session, Gabrielsen spent five minutes looking for familiar terms. He took another 10 minutes to generally go through the problems he was going to tackle. He plotted a few things on a grid to see if anything interesting came up geometrically. He tried some simple algebra. Then he settled in.  

He worked through several problems mechanically, relying on algebra to rearrange the problems. Halfway through each session, he paused to assess his progress and then concentrated on one or two problems, where he eventually scored points.

“I was kind of surprised at how well I did, honestly,” Gabrielsen reflected. “The top 12 percent is kind of a big deal.”

A community of mathematicians

Back in the classroom, Gabrielsen is the first student in Livshits’s 30-year career to take honors calculus and real analysis in the same semester. Real analysis is a 300-level course and is considered one of the hardest in the mathematics curriculum. This year out of 21 students in the course, only six are upperclassmen. Two are first-years, and the rest are sophomores.

Gabrielsen is just one in this cohort of exceptional students. Colby’s Math Department is “strong, unusually strong,” Livshits said, and it attracts increasing numbers of students who find a community of others who, like themselves, love and excel at math.

That’s been important for Gabrielsen, who lives with executive dysfunction, a behavioral disorder, which makes organizational tasks challenging and certain social situations uncomfortable. Math offers him a “tidy subject with clear rules,” and the Math Department provides a place to belong.

“We can certainly give him enough math,” the professor said, “but we can give him more. We can give him a home base.”

Thor Gabrielsen ’26 has been participating in mathematics competitions since middle school and has learned to use the art of problem solving to find creative answers to the challenging questions posed during competitions.

At the same time, Gabrielsen is branching out. He’s joined Colby’s Board Game Club to engage socially around a structured goal. Next summer, he’ll undertake an internship as a Pulver Science Scholar.

Livshits encourages his students to experiment and study many disciplines. It’s akin to the reason he encourages participation in the Putnam Competition, for the opportunity to venture off-road into unknown terrain. A reason to welcome other ways of thinking.

Because in the end, pure mathematics is about the beauty of creativity.

“Math,” Livshits said, “is a kind of art of thought.”

Problem A5 on the 2022 William Lowell Putnam Mathematical Competition

Other students who participated in the 2022 Putnam Competition include Hayden Bailey ’25, Chris Calger ’23, Sam Cohen ’25, Aum Desai ’26, Vladimir Khabaev ’25, Frederic Labbe ’23, Gillon Lim ’25, Eddie O’Sullivan ’26, and Pedro Santos ’26.