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From James Gleick's Genius: the life and science of Richard Feynman:

One of Feynman’s fraternity brothers was surprised to see him return home while the examination was still going on. Feynman learned later that the scorers had been astounded by the gap between his result and the next four.

Is this true? From what I can tell, he was simply one of the 5 top scorers in the 1939 Putnam Competition. It seems that other resources say the same thing, but I can't find any primary evidence.

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    $\begingroup$ It is correct that the scores of the top 5 are not publicly released. But of course it is difficult to refute "Feynman learned later". $\endgroup$ Jan 19, 2022 at 8:52
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    $\begingroup$ I remember this assertion quite well from when I read the book back in 1992 or 1993. Look in the Notes section, specifically the 3rd of the '83' notes on p. 453, which cites 'F-W', where 'F-W' (see p. 445) refers to "Interviews with Charles Weiner, 4 March 1966, 27-28 June 1966, and 4 February 1973". $\endgroup$ Jan 19, 2022 at 18:25
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    $\begingroup$ "Feynman received the highest score in the country by a large margin on the notoriously difficult Putnam mathematics competition exam, although he joined the MIT team on short notice and did not prepare for the test." in J Wai 2011. $\endgroup$ Jan 19, 2022 at 23:13
  • $\begingroup$ I guess, one can write to MAA to find out. $\endgroup$ Jan 20, 2022 at 12:58

2 Answers 2

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This is Feynman's memory of an unnamed person who told him that. To quote him in an interview:

Anyway, I was among the first five. I have since found out from somebody from Canada, where it was scored, who was in the scoring division—he came to me much later and he told me that it was astonishing. He said that at this examination, “Not only were you one of the five, but the gap between you and the other four was sensational.” He told me that. I didn’t know that. That may not be correct, but that’s what I heard.

Interview of Richard Feynman by Charles Weiner on 1966 March 5, Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics, College Park, MD USA.


Thank you Dave L Renfro for pointing me here. I was lucky to find this -- the word "Putnam" was never mentioned!

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However, according to wikipedia:

plus one of the top five individual scorers (designated as Putnam Fellows) is awarded a scholarship of up to $12,000 plus tuition at Harvard University (Putnam Fellow Prize Fellowship),1

William Lowell Putnam Mathematical Competition

Then the exam thing came around, and one of the prizes was that one of the winners, one of the five, would be chosen for a scholarship to Harvard for the graduate school — I believe, if I remember right. The method, as I understood it, was they didn’t want to take the winner, because they didn’t want to be stuck with a nut of some sort, by accident, right? So they made it that out of the first five they could choose, Ok?

Interview of Richard Feynman by Charles Weiner on 1966 March 5, Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics, College Park, MD USA.

So from the same interview, he mentioned that the math contest is national and the top fives are awarded Harvard scholarship. I am leaning towards Putnam. :)

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