May 8, 2015

Let them eat pi: UChicago calculus instructor gives talk on her new book

Eugenia Cheng, former Senior Lecturer and Honors Calculus instructor at the University of Chicago and current “Scientist in Residence” at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) set the lines straight Tuesday evening with a discussion about her new book How To Bake Pi: An Edible Exploration of the Mathematics of Mathematicians at the Seminary Co-Op.

Joined by her friend Laura Strickling, Cheng discussed the feelings that people typically have about math and, by using analogies and examples, discussed how her goal as an educator was to rid people of their “math phobia.” 

“I think math is great and I think that people are afraid of it possibly for the wrong reasons, but I don’t blame them for that,” Cheng said. “It’s just that no one told them why math is fun and beautiful, and not something that you necessarily have to be afraid of.”

Cheng thinks that to overcome this distaste, we should start thinking of math more like we think of food.

“When you make food, you can just add some ingredients together and do what you like with it.”

The reason that people are afraid of math, Cheng contends, is that it is poorly taught. The way people learn math revolves around a set of rules that students have to memorize and apply to problems. When people apply these rules incorrectly and get a problem wrong, they become discouraged. The issue with this method is that it doesn’t describe math at the research level.

“Math, at a research level, is a place where you make your own rules up, and as long as you follow your own rules it’s ok. And, as I tell my students, you can make up any rules you want. The worst that will happen is that your whole world will implode and turn into zero. And that’s kind of fun too!”

When Strickland asked about the difference between teaching math to math students at the University and math to art students at SAIC, Cheng responded by saying that they were different for inverted reasons. 

“[At the University of Chicago] I had to deal with [a student’s] emotional progress of thinking that [they’re] really good at math, and realizing that actually higher -level math is a lot different than [they] thought it was...whereas at [SAIC] they’re so excited that higher-level math isn’t [rule-bound high school math], so that from that point of view it’s really fun. And in a sense the art students are my perfect target audience for this book.”

Cheng concluded by noting an improvement in the way people talk about math.

“When I meet people and tell them that I’m a mathematician, 10 years ago they would go, ‘I hate math.’ Recently they’ve started saying, ‘I used to really like math and then I got really confused.’ So I’ve had the thought that now we are ready to show people the math that I love.”