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Dr. Eugenia Cheng On Why Math Is Magic

Dr. Eugenia Cheng earned her doctorate in pure mathematics, she made it her mission to spread the beauty and power of math to a wider audience. Now she’s the Scientist-in-Residence at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

At a live Nerdette event at Steppenwolf Theatre, Cheng talked about how one plus one doesn’t always equal two and why math isn’t black and white. Here’s an excerpt:

People think 'Oh, well. math is just all about getting the right answer, isn't it?'. But, math isn't just about getting the right answer. Math is about understanding things better. It is about looking at the world around you and looking at it from a different point of view in order to gain more insight into it.

And honestly, the art students love that cause because they don't want to solve problems.

They want to make things that somehow give their point of view on the world and math is nothing but giving a point of view on the world.

Every subject is defined by your way of thinking. The mathematical way of thinking is logic. And so it says, 'what can I understand about this system using logic?' It does not say, 'I can understand everything about this situation through logic.’ That is a big mistake.

Sometimes mathematicians make that mistake and think they can understand the whole world through logic and then they get really upset and frustrated.

And then, they withdraw from the world and create the stereotypes of mathematicians, who are kind of crazy and sit in corners or run off into mountains or don't want to talk to people.

The unfortunate things about those stereotypes are that they kind of do exist but the more we talk about them, the more we perpetuate them because people go 'oh, I am not like that, so I can't do math'.

But you don't have to be like that to do math. Maybe you have to be like that to do that kind of math, but there is more there to appreciate, even if you are not going to be the next Field's Medalist or whatever.

Just like you can walk into the Art Institute and admire a painting, even if you can't do it. You can go into a restaurant and eat the food, even if you can't make the food. You can go into a concert and listen to the music, even if you can't play the music.

I like to say to my art students that I am going to present math like that to them as well... so that you can appreciate it even if you can't do it.

I have no aim for my math students to become research mathematicians. That would be a high bar to set.

My aim is to get them to appreciate why math is there and to appreciate some of its power and beauty.

Cheng is the author of How to Bake Pi: An Edible Exploration of the Mathematics of Mathematics.

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