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His finalist year: 1970
His finalist project: Looking at properties of equations with four-dimensional variables
What led to the project: Joe Buff had two big interests as a kid: math and the U.S. Navy. He taught himself calculus in junior high school and his father, a former Seabee (the U.S. Navy's construction division), told him stories of ships and subs.
When Buff was 11, however, his parents divorced and his father did not play a big role in his life after that. He wound up living with his mother and five siblings in a one-bathroom winterized beach bungalow in the Far Rockaway section of Queens, N.Y., and turned to reading math books as a way to take his mind off the situation.
His teachers at Far Rockaway High School (also the alma mater of Bernie Madoff and Carl Icahn) nurtured his interests, and at age 15 he undertook a project that he called "Extension of Cauchy-Reimann and LaPlace Equations to Analytic Functions of a Quarternion Variable"—which characterized some of the mathematical properties of differentiable functions (smooth operations) in a four-dimensional arithmetic system. "I think it's the sort of thing a math professor could have figured out in about 15 minutes," he says, but when he entered the paper in the 1970 Westinghouse Science Talent Search, he was named a finalist.
The effect on his career: Buff was accepted to New York University at 15 and graduated as a math major three years later. He then entered graduate studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He enjoyed the classes, but realized that he was "not that interested in spending the rest of my life as a math professor."
So he left M.I.T. with a master's degree and looked at the private sector to find a job where his math skills might be of use. This was the beginning of a 20-year career as an actuary. This took him to a variety of places including the Guardian Life Insurance Company, Towers Perrin and, briefly, Merrill Lynch, which he calls his "last real job." He left there in 1997.
While at Towers Perrin, Buff had come up with an idea for a science fiction novel. Most busy actuaries would have dismissed this as a passing fancy, but Buff had some experience with the writing life; his wife, Sheila, is a medical writer who has collaborated on or ghost-written several best-selling books, including 2003's Atkins for Life. "My wife thought I was insane," Buff says. "She knew what it was like getting started."