Your NPR news source

Eugenia Cheng: Math Is About Discovery, Not Right Or Wrong

SHARE Eugenia Cheng: Math Is About Discovery, Not Right Or Wrong
Dr. Eugenia Cheng

Dr. Eugenia Cheng

Jason Marck/WBEZ

Eugenia Cheng is on a mission to do for mathematics what Neil deGrasse Tyson does for astronomy: Make it approachable. 

Cheng’s book How to Bake Pi used cooking to illustrate mathematical concepts. Her latest book, Beyond Infinity, explores the universe’s biggest topic — infinity. 

Cheng spoke with Morning Shift host Tony Sarabia about the alluring concept of infinity and discovering math at an early age. Below are highlights from their conversation.

On the fear of being wrong

Eugenia Cheng: A lot of people are put off by math because they like it when it’s fun. In kindergarten, it’s about playing with things and building stuff and it’s kind of fun. And then it gets to a place where you have to answer questions and you might be wrong, and if you’re wrong a lot, then you feel like you’re bad at it and you should go and do something else where there isn’t the chance of being wrong so much. Whereas actually, math (at) a higher level isn’t so much about being wrong — it’s not about getting the right and wrong answers — it’s about posing interesting questions and then creating worlds in which different answers are possible. 

On how math illuminates the unknown

Cheng: You can never learn all of math because every time you answer a question, it just creates new questions. You can see it two ways. You can say, “Oh this is futile. I’m never getting anywhere.” Or you can go, “This is amazing! There’s always more!” … So I think that if you like discovery, that’s what math is about. 

Unfortunately in school, it’s often taught as, “Can you get these right answers? If not, you’re bad, and if you can then — hooray! — you’re one of the clever ones.” And then we separate people out too much into the people who have aptitude and the people who don’t have aptitude. Whereas everybody can gain and have illumination about their lives by thinking about math to different extents. It’s not just about who’s good at it and who’s bad at it.

On infinity

Cheng: It’s easy to think of it and difficult to explain. Children get the idea of infinity very early and get really excited about it. Sometimes I give talks to 5-year-olds at school and I say, “We’re going to talk about infinity,” and they go, “Yay! Infinity!” And they’re so excited. They jump up and down. 

I think one of the reasons that math can be scary is that you think of an idea and then you can’t explain it. Parents often say to me that their child is asking these questions and they don’t know how to answer, and then as a result they put their child off asking the questions. Because they’re afraid instead of going, “Well you know what, that’s an amazing question, and even the greatest mathematicians on earth can’t answer it.” 

Isn’t it great that a small child can ask questions that we can’t answer? I think that’s amazing. 

On math at an early age

Cheng: I’ve done a lot of work with 5- and 6-year-olds, and usually when the teacher says, “We’re going to do math,” they cheer. And occasionally there will be one 6-year-old — there was one 6-year-old who said to me once, “My mum says I’m no good at math.” 

And I just thought, “Wow. Why would someone say that?” And I think that parents often tell children, “Well, I’m no good at math, so it’s OK.” And then you give everyone permission to be no good at math. And I think that’s starting to change. 

The reason I started writing these books actually was because people 10 years ago said to me, “Oh I can’t do math, I hate math,” when I said I was a mathematician. And then they started changing and started saying, “I wish I understood a bit more about math.”

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. Press the ‘play’ button above to hear the entire segment.

More From This Show