Richard Nixon shook hands here with an aging Elvis, not to mention bugged the place. JFK puzzled over Vietnam and civil rights here. FDR recited some of his fireside chats from this very spot.

And on Monday, a group of young math whizzes — including four from the Bay Area — helped the president of the United States ponder a question likely unasked in the 76 years since the most important office on Earth was built.

"Where are the foci of the Oval Office?"

Uh, foci?

You know, foci. (That's pronounced fo-sigh.) The two fixed points that define an ellipse. Remember in grade school, when you attached a loose string to two thumbtacks, then stretched the string taut with a pencil and drew an oval? Those thumbtacks represented the foci of your oval.

What else would you expect during a White House visit from six of the country's most celebrated young "mathletes"? Shortly after President Barack Obama presented the boys with M&Ms and a commemorative coin for their recent achievements at a national math contest, he discussed with them the importance of math and the challenges of the MathCounts contest that they dominated. Then he asked: Do you have any questions?

Shyam Narayanan of Overland Park, Kan., spoke up. And the hunt for the Oval Office foci began.

Instantly, said Donna Phair, a Fremont teacher and coach of the winning California team, "you saw six boys just perk up and get in an animated discussion with the president."


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Douglas Chen, an eighth-grader at Kennedy Middle School in Cupertino, was one of them.

"The president said he had heard of foci before," Douglas said, "but couldn't really remember."

But Obama was eager to help find the answer. Shyam explained the term and then paced out the room. He placed his coach and the contest's champion, Mark Sellke of West Lafayette, Ind., in the estimated spots.

They didn't have tape measures, but "after walking around it looked pretty accurate," said Lewis Chen, 14, of Hopkins Junior High in Fremont, a member of the first-place team, which included Douglas Chen, Eugene Chen of Harvest Park Middle School in Pleasanton and Aaron Lin, also of Hopkins in Fremont. The three Chens are not related.

"It was really cool," said Mark, 13, who just finished eighth grade. "President Obama made us all feel welcome in there."

Figuring out the Oval Office's foci took up a little bit more time than was on Obama's schedule, prompting restless White House aides to check their watches, Phair said.

With just about the coolest math question of all time posed and pretty much answered, the boys were ushered out. But not before the president asked Mark, the county's reigning young mathlete, a question of his own: Would he mind tutoring first daughters Sasha and Malia in math?

"I just kind of laughed," Mark said, "but if he wants my help I'd be happy to help."

Contact Sharon Noguchi at 408-271-3775.