Go figure!

Somerset College student Dario Trinchero made national headlines with his superb achievement in Mathematics, scoring 100% in the International Cambridge AS Levels written last year in Grade 11

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This highly impressive young man, with an incredible head for figures, put not only his school but, indeed, South Africa on the mathematical map, so to speak, when he astonished all and sundry with a perfect mark in one of the most demanding maths examinations of its kind in the world.

He explains that International Cambridge AS levels originate from Cambridge University in the UK. It is a completely independent curriculum that is internationally recognized and, having completed and passed the Cambridge International Examinations, participants are qualified by Cambridge according to their curriculum at a certain level. Trinchero explains that the Advanced Subsidiary (AS), level is the first part of the A-level course offered.

“If you do the AS Curriculum you are recognized globally as having completed it and many universities will accept you. AS qualifications are good enough to get into local universities, so I could go to Stellenbosch or UCT, potentially, with the results that I obtained last year. However, the A-level qualification on the whole requires an additional year, which I’m in the middle of completing now, and that will essentially qualify me to go to most universities worldwide, because a lot of them recognise it. Almost all of the major ones do, which is fantastic,” he says.

As a typical teenager, he has a number of interests, including music. He plays the drums and piano and also occasionally plays video games and spends time with his girlfriend, friends and family. His biggest interest, however, is in academics and he spends the bulk of his time nurturing his passion for maths and physics by solving problems, reading about maths and science related subjects and computer programming. He puts his success in Mathematics down to a combination of hard work and remaining interested in always learning.

Genetically gifted

When it comes to maths, he says he does not necessarily believe a flair for the subject comes completely naturally. “Some people are more genetically gifted towards being able to reason out problem solving, but I don’t think that it’s a natural talent, really, especially not in my case. If one has a propensity towards mathematics, or any other subject, then it is important to nurture that talent in order to maintain it. I think to some degree, there’s always some kind of hidden influence that is not obviously apparent,” says Trinchero.

“I was raised in such a way that from a very young age I was introduced to problem solving, and a lot of what I did as a child had a subtle undertone of problem solving, even if it wasn’t necessarily that obvious. The games I would play and the activities that would occupy me as a child often had a problem solving slant, so I think to some degree aptitude is building from that sort of thing – from being raised in such a way that you actually develop those neural connections from a young age.

“From when I started school I have always enjoyed maths, and I’ve always been fairly good at maths, I’ve always worked very hard at it, and I think that’s what counts. Because maths is a very conglomerate subject; if you miss anything you could tend to fall off at some stage because a lot of it builds on what you’ve learnt previously, hence I think that’s part of why I’m good at maths – because I’ve kept up with it throughout my entire schooling career.”

His attraction to mathematics stems from a curiosity, in a deep theoretical sense, of the subject itself, and, in a more practical sense about its applications in the world. He explains that while he does enjoy problem solving and gets a large amount of satisfaction from it, what really attracts him to maths is learning about how it all works.

“I like to learn about how physical phenomena work, and that’s what makes me interested in physics, because it’s a direct application of mathematics. It’s this direct homeomorphism, so to speak, where mathematics can actually show its potential in the real world, where it can actually demonstrate valuable results in the real world. And it fascinates and intrigues me and keeps me interested every time I learn about some or other physics concept that has been shown to be accurately based on the maths behind it. I’m drawn to the fundamental truth of it, I suppose - it’s the actual fundamental results of mathematics that I find most interesting.”

When it comes to limitations, he says there definitely are a few, and while good at applying what he’s learnt in AS levels, it certainly does not mean that he can solve any mathematical problem given to him. “Obviously my knowledge and expertise are not global,” he laughs. “There are many mathematical problems and every mathematician encounters something that he cannot solve. I consider myself good at maths, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m good at all areas of problem solving. For example, geometry and geometrical thinking are very different, perhaps, to algebra and algebraic thinking. I consider myself to be very good at algebra, but I often get stumped by geometrical problems.

Really challenging

“I participate in a website called Project Euler, which has a whole bunch of problems that are basically intended to be solved with computer programs and they’re really challenging. They go up to an exceptionally high difficulty level, and there are thousands of people who sit on that website and only a few who have solved the most difficult problems. Naturally I try to work through them in order of difficulty, but there are often times when I just have to put it aside and forget about it for a while and then come back to it much later. With some I realise I can’t do it because I don’t have the right knowledge yet, and many I simply don’t know how to solve,” says Trinchero. “I think that’s normal and natural and that’s how we learn, and I don’t think you should ever come to a point where you can solve any problem presented to you, because then you’re not looking for the right problem.”

There are a number of mathematicians who he admires. One in particular is Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan. Though he had almost no formal training in pure maths, Ramanujan made extraordinary contributions to mathematical analysis, number theory, infinite series and continued fractions.

“He is one of those people who I think you can say are truly gifted. He famously sent a letter to Godfrey Harold Hardy at a major university and got recognised for the achievements and discoveries that he made which were way beyond his time. And he had no formal mathematical training, which is incredible. So I think Ramanujan is probably the most inspiring, simply because his achievements show that you don’t necessarily need formal training, and you don’t need to go to the best schools in order to be good at maths or get something valuable out of maths. Of course I have been lucky enough to have good opportunities and I certainly class Ramanujan in a category of his own.”

Unsurprisingly, he believes that Mathematics is a very important subject in the big scheme of things and he encourages his fellow students to persevere through the difficulties. He says that while there is certainly a problem in South Africa regarding very poor maths results at matric level, and that there are many for whom maths is a constant struggle, he believes that the situation can be remedied through a combination of good teachers, hard work and changing the way one perceives the subject.

“Maths isn’t really about doing the problems; it’s about the actual results, and I think a lot of people are not interested in mathematics because they don’t realise that—they just see the tedium. They see difficulty, something that is unattainable and inaccessible, and I think that what people need to realise is that there is more to it than that. I would encourage people to actually look a little bit deeper because people tend to look at maths very superficially.”

He finds that a lot of people who do not like mathematics don’t like it because they say that none of it is practical. The unfortunate thing about it is that while at school on a day to day basis you’re doing maths because you need the results to get accepted at a tertiary level...to get a career and then from that point forward you never use it again. You know you want to study some or other field and it requires maths but it doesn’t properly use maths on a day to day basis, and potentially to a lot of people it is useless, but that’s not why we do it. The fact that maths has uses is not the only reason that there is an interest in it. Asked whether he views himself as having leadership qualities and the potential to be a leader to others, he pauses thoughtfully.

“I think I can lead if I’m put in a leadership role. However I don’t always choose to,” he says. “I consider myself to be fairly resolute and fairly integrated, and having a strong sense of self, so I’m not one easily influenced by others. I wouldn’t say that I’m a follower in any sense either – I tend to take my own path and not really care what other people think about me —and that’s usually how I’ve been as a person, but at the same time I don’t necessarily try to directly inspire or lead other people.

“If I do inspire others, then fantastic. It’s a happy by-product of the fact that I am who I am, but I don’t try to lead and I don’t necessarily try to put myself in positions where I do lead. It’s not what I enjoy doing. I don’t like telling other people what to do. I think that if put in a scenario where I’m expected to be that, I can cope with it and I can get things done, but I don’t necessarily think that it’s my forte, so to speak. I’m a very introverted person and am most comfortable left to my own devices. I tend to pay the same respect to others and leave them alone to do whatever they want and feel comfortable doing,” he says.

Work ethic

He believes a key factor to his achievements and attitude towards learning and work ethic is his school and the support he gets from his teachers. Established 19 years ago, Somerset College is an independent, co-educational school, offering schooling from Grade 000 (age 4) to Matric. Boarding is available for students in the Senior School and the school hosts international students. The current head of the school is Ms Meg Fargher. “The biggest thing I love about this school is that it’s such a positive and supportive environment. I feel like I can always focus here. If I wake up in a bad mood and then come to school and look around me, it puts me in a better mood and makes for a much more conducive environment for learning. I feel that schools that are open and free like Somerset College are much more conducive to getting good results from students than ones that are militaristic and formal,” says the young maths boffin.

“I certainly think that this school has been developing at a ridiculous rate recently, and I obviously have my headmistress to thank for the whole A-Level curriculum and it being introduced in the first place. While there are quite a few schools in South Africa that do it, it was introduced last year at Somerset College, so I was among the first group to be able to do it. Without Mrs Fargher I would never have had the opportunity, so I’m very grateful altogether for having come to this school, the fantastic teachers throughout, and for the general opportunities that I’ve been presented with here that I might not have been presented with at many other schools in South Africa. I really appreciate being here.”

He has attended Somerset College since Grade 7 and is currently completing his final year. On what lies ahead after high school, he says that he would like to study further, particularly in the fields of theoretical physics and computer science.

“Other than that I am thinking of studying mathematics as well. Basically I would like to study a lot of things,” he laughs.

“I see myself as a scholar, in the sense that I can pretty much see myself studying for most of my life, and hopefully working at a research institution or even just at a really good university somewhere. I would be very happy doing that.” ▲

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