North Salem High School senior Mark Takken named top scholar in Regeneron Science Talent Search
The summer between seventh and eighth grade, Mark Takken attended MathPath, a four-week camp in Massachusetts designed for students with an affinity for math. Takken had always been a strong math student, but this camp was the first time he found himself surrounded by other people who loved math as much as he did, and who wanted to work as hard at it outside of school.
MathPath exposed Takken to challenging math concepts that he would not have otherwise learned in school. And, it sparked in Takken a passion for the subject that has only grown over the past five years. On January 6, Takken was named a top scholar in the Regeneron Science Talent Search, the nation’s oldest and most prestigious science and mathematics competition for high school seniors.
“For Mark to be in this light means he beat out not just other applicants but all these people who were so motivated to do their own projects in high school and spend their summers doing research. His project was better than all of those,” said David Moste, North Salem High School physics teacher and Takken’s advisor for the school’s Science Research program. “Take the most motivated high schoolers in America, and to say that he had one of the best projects is pretty incredible.”
Takken was chosen from among over 1,800 applicants for his project, “Transferring Go AI to New Topological Surfaces Without Additional Training.” Takken’s project used an ancient Chinese strategy game called Go to test whether artificial intelligence has the capability to transfer knowledge in ways similar to aspects of human intelligence.
Takken, who says math is both intrinsically beautiful and broadly applicable to many different aspects of life, is fascinated by the potential of artificial intelligence to transfer knowledge, rather than just complete specific tasks.
“A big area that Mark’s work focuses on is continuation learning,” Moste explained. “How can you create a neural network on a computer such that even as there is a live stream of data coming in, the artificial intelligence can use the knowledge it already has and adapt that knowledge to this new stream of data.”
“My project demonstrates how [the computer] transfers knowledge between different variations of the game Go. That illustrates a particular aspect of human intelligence,” Takken said. “And I think that’s beautiful in a way.”
Takken has no plans to stop investing his time and energy into exploring complicated math topics. Following high school graduation, he intends to study applied math or computer science as both an undergraduate and graduate student at one of the nation’s top universities. He has already been accepted into Harvard, and is waiting to hear from several other schools he applied to, including his top choice MIT as well as the University of Michigan, University of Wisconsin, Princeton, Stanford and Carnegie Mellon.
Wherever Takken ends up, he’s sure to make an impact on the world’s understanding of complex concepts that rely on math for answers. He has already immersed himself in spherical trigonometry, an obscure subject that has what Takken describes as “broad and beautiful” applications to the world of astronomy.
“If you want to know when the sun will set today, and rise tomorrow, you need to know the altitude and direction of the sun. That all uses spherical trigonometry,” Takken explained. “It’s something that people regularly look up and it greatly affects the daily lives of people.”
Digging in on complicated math that impacts people's everyday lives - that’s where Takken sees his greatest potential to make an impact. After all, as he said, “math runs the world.”