On the experience of MCM: Stress, Depression, and Excitement
The following is a slightly edited version of an email from Jerry Pan, one of this year's MCM participants, sent to Jim Morrow the day after the contest closed. We thank Jerry Pan for the permission to include it in this newsletter.
The MCM was the single most stressful, depressing, unbelievably-exciting-when-getting-something-done thing I had done in my entire life. Needless to say, all of us worked to the best mental, physical, and psychological abilities we could summon in such a short period of time. The MCM was especially difficult for us because none of us had done MCM before, none of us was an applied math major with experience of solving PDEs, and none of us had any prior knowledge of how water behaves in an open channel. With the help of some extensive research and thinking, we came up with many different and exciting ideas, accompanied with many disappointments along the way. The most promising idea of them all, may I say, failed to give us what we wanted at 10am in the morning on the last day. We were trying to numerically approximate a hyperbolic PDE (the Saint Venant equation to be exact) using a MacCormack predictor-corrector scheme that we just learned from papers, and the results were surprisingly bad on longer time steps or a longer overall time span. We had to drop the idea because it would not give us the data we wanted on the flooding over the entire length of the Saluda river. This fact completely crushed us. At that moment, we had a quarter of a paper done, and, no model to finish it. We were all about to give up altogether because it was too close to the deadline to come up with any other ideas and to write a paper based on them. We had to get out of the office and take a break. We went out for breakfast. The entire process was silent. We all fell into our own traps of self-loathing because we had no idea what to say to you when we would hand our paper to you with no results in it. Over the past months, you have put so much work and hope into us. We knew we must be able to at least get some results in this contest. Nonetheless, the situation seemed hopeless for us to do that. I had never felt so bad in my life.
After going back to the office, because I really hated giving up, I made a seemingly hopeless move. I changed the program that implements the MacCormack scheme to a simple one-step finite difference method. To my surprise, it gave us very workable results. It was six hours away from the deadline, and we finally had a new model to work with and write a paper on. Time was of the essence. After a short argument about whether there was still hope for us, we decided to just do it and see what happens. We all became busy and nervous and started doing things as fast as we could to meet the deadline. What you will be reading is what we came up with in that period of time.
I certainly know that our paper has many imperfections and may not even explain very well what we actually accomplished. However, I just wanted to let you know that we tried very hard and we hope that it deserves what you have done for us. I also wanted to share the experience with someone, and since you are the first person that came to my mind, I am writing to you. On a final note, I am glad (after 15 hours of sleep, that is) that I did this contest. I got to work with such brilliant minds on a problem that I would have never done otherwise. We learned so much in the process and got pushed so hard. Now every time there is a stressful situation, I'll always think back to the MCM and realize that there could be worse situations. It was an unparalleled experience altogether. Thank you so much for getting us into this and coaching us and letting us know, during the contest, that we still had hope yet. Thank you.