It all started with an innocuous TikTok video posted by a high school student named Gracie Cunningham. Applying make-up while speaking into the camera, the teenager questioned whether math is “real.” She added: “I know it’s real, because we all learn it in school… but who came up with this concept?” Pythagoras, she muses, “didn’t even have plumbing—and he was like, ‘Let me worry about y = mx + b’”—referring to the equation describing a straight line on a two-dimensional plane. She wondered where it all came from. “I get addition,” she said, “but how would you come up with the concept of algebra? What would you need it for?”
Someone re-posted the video to Twitter, where it soon went viral. Many of the comments were unkind: One person said it was the “dumbest video” they had ever seen; others suggested it was indicative of a failed education system. Others, meanwhile, came to Cunningham’s defense, saying that her questions were actually rather profound.
this video makes sense in my head but like WHY DID WE CREATE THIS STUFF
♬ original sound – gracie
Mathematicians from Cornell and from the University of Wisconsin weighed in, as did philosopher Philip Goff of Durham University in the U.K. Mathematician Eugenia Cheng, currently the scientist-in-residence at the Art Institute of Chicago, wrote a two-page reply and said Cunningham had raised profound questions about the nature of mathematics “in a very deeply probing way.”
Cunningham had unwittingly re-ignited a very ancient and unresolved debate in the philosophy of science. What, exactly, is math? Is it invented, or discovered? And are the things
— source smithsonianmag.com | Dan Falk | Sep 23, 2020