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Math is amazing and we have to start treating it that way

August 18, 2017 at 6:10 PM EDT
Numbers and algorithms aren’t just useful to mathematician Eugenia Cheng -- they’re exhilarating. That’s why she’s on a mission to help transform math’s notoriously boring reputation in education into one of thrilling wonder and creativity. Cheng gives her humble opinion on how to make math really matter to students.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: Why is it that people have no qualms about confessing, I’m terrible at math, yet you rarely hear anyone saying, I’m awful at English?

Eugenia Cheng is the scientist in residence at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and author, whose latest book is “Beyond Infinity.”

Tonight, we hear her Humble Opinion on why math is in need of a makeover.

EUGENIA CHENG, Mathematician: Hi. I would like you to meet a friend of mine. He’s really useful. Wait. That doesn’t make him sound very interesting, does it? Or fun.

Wouldn’t it be better to say, hi, I would like you to meet a friend of mine, she’s amazing. she’s brilliant?

We’d never introduce a friend by saying they’re useful. So, why are we doing that to math? Why do we keep going on about how important it is for everyone to learn math because it’s useful? Has that ever got a young person interested in anything?

I think math is fascinating and fun. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be a mathematician. Some math began life without any sign of practicality. Like, babies, they’re not exactly useful.

For example, Internet cryptography. It means we can do online shopping, online banking, and send e-mails. This comes from some number theory that existed just for its own sake 300 years ago. Most of engineering, medicine, lab science, weather forecasts and technology depends on calculus.

Calculus depends on irrational numbers that the Egyptians started wondering about thousands of years ago. The icosahedron is a satisfyingly symmetrical shape that was dreamt up by ancient Greek mathematicians.

Two thousand years later, it was finally applied to the study of viruses and the structure of carbon and designing soccer balls.

But imagine if we only did math that was directly applicable, rather than stimulated by sheer curiosity. We’d still be building houses by hand and communicating on paper delivered on horseback and dying of the Plague.

The usefulness of math is a burden, and we’re perpetuating this burden in a cycle. We require elementary school teachers to teach everything, but what if math wasn’t their favorite subject at school? Math-y people are more likely to be specialist math teachers at higher levels.

So, if elementary school teachers remember math as important, but not fun, they’re likely to teach it as important, but not fun. And the cycle goes on. We need to break it.

Some elementary schools have specialist teachers for art, music or languages. Let’s have specialist elementary math teachers too. Let’s allow them to teach math in imaginative and creative ways. Let’s teach children how to think, rather than just how to pass standardized tests.

I think math is fun and exhilarating. I enjoy understanding things. I enjoy thinking clearly. That’s what math is about.

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