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."

Nevertheless, because he had a few months off between leaving Towers Perrin and starting at Merrill Lynch, he decided to write the book. "It had flaws," he says, and it has never been published. But it was good enough to land him a literary agent. After leaving Merrill Lynch he began writing nonfiction pieces about his old love: submarines. He decided to write a novel about them, as well, and in 2000, Bantam published Deep Sound Channel, a thriller about a war fought in the South Atlantic in 2011. Over the next five years, he cranked out five more novels, including Tidal Rip, which made the Barnes & Noble top 20 paperback bestsellers list.

Then, in 2005, Buff took time off to help care for Sheila, who was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She is now in remission.

What he's doing now: Buff is back at work on a new novel, a more science fiction–oriented one this time. He's also writing, mostly about naval issues, for DefenseTech.org, a military site owned by Monster, the career Web site. Despite his father's naval experience, according to Christian Lowe, the managing editor of Military.com (DefenseTech's parent site), this may seem odd, given Buff's own lack of a military career, but his research and insight make up for it. "He wasn't in the Navy, but sometimes it's a lot better to have someone who's coming at it from a noninstitutional angle," he says.

Lowe recently featured a podcast with Buff about a topic very much in the news: Piracy off the Somali coast. Although it has become trendy to argue that the Navy needs new, lighter craft to combat pirates, Buff disagrees. "The blue water Navy, he argued, was perfectly postured and equipped to defeat piracy," Lowe says. ("Blue water Navy" refers to the ships that can sail in the open sea, unlike smaller ones that are limited to inland and coastal waters.) Existing guided missile destroyers intimidate pirates more than small ships. "[Buff] thinks for himself and [is] a darn good writer," Lowe adds—so he's glad to have him on board.