If you claim you’ve never wondered why math exists, you’re either lying or have not been truly bored yet.
Gracie Cunningham, a teenager who took to TikTok to muse about how early mathematicians came to develop the equations she has to learn at school every day, went viral for bravely asking the tough questions.
Unfortunately, the reason Gracie went viral in the first place was because a Twitter user shared the video with the caption “this is the dumbest video I’ve ever seen.” That tweet has since been deleted.
“I was just going to tell you guys about how I don’t think math is real,” Gracie said in the TikTok.
She wondered aloud about what made mathematicians and philosophers like Pythagoras even realize we needed formulas and equations, and questioned what made them choose to describe things the way they did.
“How did he come up with this? He was living in the … I don’t know, whenever he was living. But it was not now when you can have technology and stuff,” she said. “Like, he didn’t even have plumbing, but he was like let me worry about y=mx+b … how would you even figure that out? How would you even start on the concept of algebra?”
Gracie admitted that addition and subtraction are practical, but more advanced concepts like algebra aren’t inherently obvious.
Some commenters judged her harshly.
“She can’t be serious,” one said.
“This is idiotic. Great thinkers derive their formulas from others toward their goal to get a simplified equation. It’s not aliens or time travel,” another wrote.
can we blow this one up instead of the one where i sound stupid hashtag math isn’t real pic.twitter.com/HuaEDwqXXP— gracie cunningham | BLM (@graciegcunning) August 27, 2020
“I would like to re-do my TikTok about how math is not real, and I would like to be smart this time,” she said before explaining herself once again.
She reiterated that she does not understand how people knew what they were looking for when they started theorizing formulas and questioned how they could possibly know they were right.
This time, tons of Twitter users showed support for her — many of which had impressive backgrounds.
“These are great questions and worth investigating. The answers give you rich insight into math, philosophy, and just plain old humanity,” one scientist wrote. “We need to ask questions like these to know our own history! So keep asking.”
“You’d make a FANTASTIC scientist, stay curious,” said James O’Donoghue, an astronomer.
When Gracie challenged the establishment and bravely admitted she doesn’t think math is “real,” some thought it seemed like the foolish opinion of a high schooler — but math experts actually agree with her.
Scott Beaver, who has a PhD in chemical engineering with a specialty in mathematical modeling and currently runs a science education website, told In The Know he agreed with much of what Cummingham said.
He said that the 18th-century techniques that fascinated Gracie are actually the same ones we use now, but modern computers “just do that same old math faster.”
“Here’s my simple answer about whether math is real: No,” he said. “Math is just a way to describe patterns. Patterns are real, but not math. Nonetheless, math is really, really useful stuff!”
Justin Menda, a math tutor, found that Gracie’s line of questioning is actually proof that schools aren’t teaching math the right way.
“I’m just as upset as my students with the arbitrary and often foolish ways in which many topics … are treated in school,” he told In The Know. “I want them to feel like this was all worthwhile, not because they ‘will use it someday,’ but because the process is meaningful to them right now.”
Though he disagreed with her implication that math isn’t worth learning, he gets where she’s coming from, and thinks other people should “unplug from the matrix” like this.
“The way math is taught in most schools leaves most of us indoctrinated in the idea that it’s all ‘real’ in any sense we care to contemplate,” he said. “There’s nothing inherently wrong with unquestioned assumptions; society wouldn’t function if everyone had to be convinced of everything from the ground up.”
There you have it, folks — math isn’t real, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter. Bravo, Gracie.
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