Forty thousand dollars became a surreal number to Jacob Lurie last night.
The Montgomery Blair High School senior with a penchant for numbers - real and imaginary - is the grand-prize winner of the 55th annual Westinghouse Science Talent Search. He learned of the $40,000 award at a ceremony last night in the District.
The 18-year-old's project showed how to compute with surreal numbers, an extension of the real number system that includes infinite and infinitesimal quantities.
"His idea was to take some established parts of mathematics and combine them in a new way," said Carol Wood, a professor of mathematics at Wesleyan University and one of 12 talent search judges. "He's interested in the underpinnings, the foundations of mathematics, the principles we assume about numbers."
"It's quite abstract," she tried to explain.
It was plain as day for Jacob, who earned a perfect score and a gold medal in the 1994 International Mathematics Olympiad.
"Each year someone stands out," Miss Wood said. "This year it was Jacob Lurie who stood out. I think one can recognize brilliance."
Jacob said he didn't enter the Westinghouse competition to win, but because it "seemed like something to do." His only reaction on being announced the winner at last night's ceremony was to raise his eyebrows.
"I was surprised," said Jacob, 18, who has lost track of the amount of time he spent on his project. He called the week preceding last night's announcement a great experience that allowed him "to talk to people really interested in science."
The Westinghouse Science Talent Search is a tough competition for high school seniors. Take second-place finisher Ting Luo, 18, of New York, who studied gene expression and retrieving genetic information used to perform vital cell functions, or third-place finisher Matthew David Graham, 18, of Florida, who spent four years developing a sensor to detect icing on aircraft surfaces. …