PROVO Sam Dittmer's last name may sound a lot like Ty Detmer's, but it's no more similar than the tales of how Dittmer and Detmer wound up at Brigham Young University, where Dittmer began fall classes Tuesday with 4,684 other freshmen.
BYU recruited Detmer hard, coveting the Texas high school football phenom who eventually chose to play quarterback in Provo, broke numerous passing records and won a Heisman Trophy.
BYU recruited Dittmer just as hard. An Indiana high school phenom, Dittmer had excelled on a national stage. The best schools threw big money at him; Stanford offered $25,000 in annual financial aid.
Like a blue-chip football recruit, Dittmer even made a paid recruiting visit to BYU's campus in January as he was completing his senior year in high school.
The difference? Dittmer is a coveted math superstar far better prepared to crunch Detmer's numbers than to surpass them on the field.
But again like Detmer, he chose BYU for the chance to "play" early in his college career, albeit at a high level in the classroom instead of in a stadium.
"The big thing is students can work along with professors here," said Dittmer, who also got an acceptance letter from MIT. "Other schools put a lot into their graduate schools, and graduate students teach a lot of undergraduate classes instead of actual professors. At BYU, professors allow undergraduates to team up with them on research, and BYU is very competitive at sending its graduates to the best graduate schools."
In 2006, the National Opinion Research Center found that BYU graduates went on to earn more doctorates between 1995 and 2004 than graduates of Stanford, MIT and Yale, and only nine schools were better.
BYU has emphasized "mentored research" for much of this decade. Last year, the university awarded more than $500,000 in research grants to 302 undergraduates. Nearly 100 faculty members received more than $1.6 million for research projects involving undergraduates.
Dittmer also is expected to start as a freshman on BYU's math competition team. As a sophomore in high school, Dittmer reached the finals of the national math Olympiad as a member of Indiana's team. A few dozen contestants answered the first seven questions correctly.
Only Dittmer could answer the eighth.
He was so accomplished that Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels adapted the state's tradition of giving the title Mr. Basketball to the state's best high school player and last year crowned Dittmer Indiana's Mr. Math.
Math department chair Tyler Jarvis channeled BYU football coach Bronco Mendenhall when he talked about this year's math recruiting class.
"We have a really strong student returned from (an LDS) mission this year and some stars who are coming to BYU as freshmen, including Sam, so we have good reason to believe that this coming year we will do very well again," Jarvis said.
BYU competes each year in the Putnam Examination, during which undergraduates answer six extraordinarily difficult problems in three hours. The median score is a zero out of 120.
"That's another reason I'm excited to go to BYU," Dittmer said. "I've always enjoyed the more exciting aspects of math in competitions. I liked that the professor enjoyed coaching the team and that they take the Putnam seriously and have a team that practices regularly."
Dittmer and the rest of the team will practice at least once a week in a math seminar, a requirement of one of the two scholarships BYU gave him. The Putnam Exam is scheduled for the first Saturday in December.
Dittmer is filling the rest of his class schedule with abstract algebra, ordinary analysis, computer science, international politics and two religion courses Book of Mormon and mission prep that will fulfill graduation requirements at a school operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as well as ready him for his plans to serve a mission for the church after his freshman year.
Dittmer, the sixth of Phil and Janet Dittmer's seven children, is following in the footsteps of his oldest brother, Andrew, a doctoral candidate at Harvard, and his father Phil, a physicist with both the initials PHD and a Ph.D. from Stanford.
"I always compared my progress to what he had done at a certain age," Sam said of his brother Andrew. "My brother's been teaching me interesting math for a long time."30 comments on this story
Dittmer most enjoys number theory and group theory. He would love to help prove the Riemann Hypothesis, which would earn a prize of $1 million from the Clay Mathematics Institute. Despite the best efforts of many mathematicians, the hypothesis, central to understanding the overall distribution of primes, has been an open question for 149 years and is considered critical.
A full 80 percent of students accepted by BYU for the last school year actually enrolled at the university, tying Harvard for the nation's best yield rate, according to U.S. News & World Report.
This year, 10,182 prospective freshmen completed applications to enroll at BYU during the summer or fall terms. The acceptance rate was 68 percent (6,954 accepted).
A year ago, BYU admitted 7,384 freshmen for the summer and fall terms."We're trying to give as much opportunity as we can," BYU admissions director Kirk Strong said. "Our last two classes have been two of our largest freshmen classes."