Teen Asks Where Math Came From, Gets Roasted—But Mathematicians Are Coming To Her Defense

Some viral tweets live in their moment alone and others explode all across the Internet, starting a chain of debate at a level they did not intend. High school student Grace Cunningham probably didn’t intend to set off blood feuds in the math community when she posted some philosophical questions to TikTok, but that’s what happened.

In her original TikTok, Cunningham asks some questions about math. I, personally, try to think about math as little as possible, so I am not on Grace’s level.  Here are her thought-provoking queries:

@gracie.hamthis video makes sense in my head but like WHY DID WE CREATE THIS STUFF♬ original sound – gracie.ham

“I know it’s real because we all learned it in school or whatever. But who came up with this concept? And you’ll be like ‘Pythagoras.’ But how? 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, where you can have, like technology and stuff, you know. I get an addition. Like hey, if you take two apples and add three, it’s five. But how would you come up with the concept of, like, algebra? What would you need it for?”

These are actually questions commonly discussed in philosophy or math circles, because math isn’t easy to understand and many of the higher levels of math learning are more about theory than practical application. But because she’s a teen girl applying makeup, her TikTok got downloaded and posted to Twitter by someone named @aIeturner, who captioned it, “this is the dumbest video ive ever seen.”

Babe, have you ever seen the Internet? This isn’t the dumbest video by a long shot.

That person has deleted that tweet, though it was captured by KnowYourMeme, because a lot of people stepped in to defend her and answer some of her questions:

And, it turns out there is a lot of disagreement on whether or not math is real, even amongst mathematicians:

TikTok drag queen Kyne, who posts mainly about math, tried to answer her questions, too, coming down on the side of math being real because many different cultures came to similar conclusions separately around the same time:

@onlinekyne##duet with @gracie.ham here’s my response to this video about the philosophy of math! How did it come to be? And how do we know it’s true? ##math♬ original sound – gracie.ham

@onlinekyne##duet with @gracie.ham part 2 on which I expand on the philosophy of ##math ! Is math even real? Does it even matter? ##edutok ##learnontiktok♬ original sound – gracie.ham

Many others said the response to Grace was pretty sexist, and her questions would have been taken more seriously if she were a man.

Grace told the Mary Sue that the most painful accusation she was met with was being called racist for attributing algebra to Pythagoras, rather than Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi, who is not often discussed in the U.S., but is considered the true creator or algebra.

“I’m aware that he wasn’t white and so clearly doesn’t get the attention he deserves,” she said. “But it was never my intent to seem like I was devaluing his work.”

Unfortunately, the Internet is a place that tends to prioritize polarization and rage over nuanced debate and genuine curiosity. If you find yourself screaming at teenagers for questioning complicated concepts in an attempt to learn more, maybe log off for a while.

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