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Wonder Boy

A local math whiz takes problem solving to the nth degree.

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Bobby's latest passion is solving crosscodes — crosswords without any clues, in which each number is a letter that must be figured out. He creates them too. Bobby has Asperger syndrome, a kind of high-functioning autism, sometimes classified in its own category and often associated with savant-type mathematicians, musicians and scientists.

In February he competed in and won the regional MATHCOUNTS competition sponsored by the Richmond Chapter of the Virginia Society of Professional Engineers. The local mathematics contest is open to all middle-school students, and Bobby, a sixth-grader from Chesterfield County who is home-schooled, ranked first among 108 registered students in both the oral and written exams. The day of the competition, he wore his favorite lucky shirt bearing the prime number 5113.

But luck has little to do with Bobby's talent. His knack for figuring out in his head what most can't on paper has garnered him mention in the book "A Passion for Mathematics: Numbers, Puzzles, Madness, Religion, and the Quest for Reality," by Clifford A. Pickover, published July 8 by John Wiley and Sons and available at area bookstores. It's the 37th book by Pickover on the marvels of math. And Bobby's name appears on page 34.

In his previous book, "Wonders of Numbers," Pickover recounts the story of child prodigy Truman Henry Safford (1836-1901) being asked to square, in his head, the number 365,365,365,365,365,365. He does.

The answer: 133,491,850,208,566,925,016,658,299,941, 583,225.

Bobby is the reason the anecdote is repeated in Pickover's new book. The credit reads: "Bobby Jacobs, a ten-year-old math whiz from Virginia, wrote to me with the corrected version that you see here. He was the only person to have discovered my earlier typographical error."

This latest nod to Bobby's skills seems to affirm how the finite world is tested by those who are different, by the unpredictable — or unknown — among us. As a young child, Bobby had several life-threatening illnesses, his mother says, declining to elaborate. Whereas his body was vulnerable, his mind was strong. He was fascinated not by mobiles but by mazes — anything logical such as Pascal's triangle. He began speaking before he was 6 months old; he was reading by age 1; and by age 2 he could compute simple addition and subtraction problems, his mother says.

Two years ago, Bobby's parents asked him what his dream vacation would be. His answer: a day spent with famed mathematician Raymond Smullyan. So the Jacobs family set off for the evergreen climes of the Catskill Mountains, where the reclusive octogenarian resides. Smullyan and his wife welcomed the far-flung family, Eileen Jacobs says, and Bobby spent the day with the math master.

Back in Richmond, Bobby's mathematical abilities quickly became too advanced for his mother to match. She took him to the Maggie L. Walker Governor's School, where for a month or so he met with math teacher John Barnes, who marveled at Bobby's advanced understanding of logic.

To a stranger, Bobby looks and talks like any other 11-year-old. Well, mostly. His Asperger's, sometimes called the "little professor's syndrome," manifests itself in small yet pointed ways. He may talk too loud in the library, for example, or make odd sounds. "I call them social quirks or wackies," Eileen Jacobs says.

Such anomalies all but disappear when Bobby buries his mind in math. At the MATHCOUNTS competition at Virginia Commonwealth University's Siegel Center earlier this year, Bobby earned a perfect score in a speed round of mathematics questions … la Jeopardy. "Bobby is the first with his type of disability to compete and reach this level," says Becky Draper, coordinator of the competition.

That day Bobby won two trophies. "He kind of did a dance as if to say, 'Oh, I'm free,'" Draper says. "He was the happiest boy in the room, and not because he won."

Perhaps it's because math fosters in Bobby a sense of confidence, equipping him with what others take for granted.

In the oppressive heat of early afternoon last week, he rides his bike through his South Side neighborhood, creating his own breeze. He takes a break to talk math. "I like prime numbers," he says, explaining that a prime number is one only divisible by itself and the number 1. On July 21, his favorite prime number is 57,006,333, 209,670,437. That said, he excuses himself to "go play" and make water balloons.

He'll use math to make sense of life, his mother opines. "I think doing [math] will help him navigate in the world," she says. "He's told me he'd like to find the mathematical formula that ties the whole universe together." S



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