The magnetism of mathematics

Jakob Hofstad may only be a sophomore, but he’s already participated in six math competitions during his time at St. Olaf College.

A mathematics and physics double major, Hofstad’s love for numbers is part of what brought him to the Hill.

“My dad went to St. Olaf, and I learned it had good math and music programs. I also liked the idea of going to a liberal arts college because of the inclusive community and being able to get to know professors,” he says.

Hofstad first joined a high school math team as an eighth grader. Since then, he’s never looked back. Hofstad says he started math competitions because “it was fun to do challenging problems and fulfilled my desire to do math since my classes were easy.”

When it came time to go to St. Olaf, Hofstad knew he wanted to keep doing competitions. In pursuit of that goal, he joined the St. Olaf Problem-Solving Group. The group meets regularly to work on practice problems, and members can attend three competitions a year, two local and one national.

For Hofstad, the Problem-Solving Group lets him keep doing what he loves. His favorite competition has been the Putnam Competition, which is the preeminent mathematics competition for undergraduate college students in the United States and Canada. “Putnam problems are a lot harder and I like the challenge,” Hofstad says.

But he also found his interests expanding since coming to St. Olaf. Hofstad, it turns out, really likes physics: “Physics involves lots of math. But physics also includes topics like the structure of the universe and all that weirdness. I find it fascinating.”

He also joined the Science Conversation, a year-long series of three linked courses. St. Olaf students read primary texts by influential figures along with secondary sources while engaging in seminar-style discussions. The program brings together students and faculty with a broad range of academic interests for a critical exploration of science within its historical, cultural, and social contexts. “It’s a lot of reading, but it’s also a lot of fun,” Hofstad says. “We have good discussions, and I’m learning about science through other lenses.”

As much as Hofstad enjoys the mathematical realm, his other passion is music. Throughout middle school and high school he played a variety of instruments including piano, trumpet, and French horn. Now an Ole, Hofstad sings in Chapel Choir and says that “sometimes I still find time to play piano and I play keyboard on the worship teams.”

And in true Ole tradition, next year Hofstad will spend a semester abroad in Budapest. Studying what, you ask? Why, mathematics, of course.