Gary Conkling Life Notes

Mostly whimsical reflections on life

Edible Math

Don’t have the stomach for math? Maybe you should try edible math.

How to Bake PIEugenia Cheng, a university mathematics professor at the University of Chicago, says math is like cooking. You mix together a bunch of ingredients and make something to eat.

Cheng has written a book – How to Bake π – that you could call the mathematics equivalent of Julia Child’s famous French cookbooks. Appropriately, Cheng starts her chapters with dessert recipes.

Her goal is to make math more digestible, especially for young people too often turned off by turnip-tasting trigonometry or cold-plate calculus. She believes in dispensing math lessons in bite-size chunks that you can swallow and even enjoy.

Eugenia ChengWhile the storytelling is authentic, edible math is mostly the hors d’oeuvre to the piece de résistance of her book – category theory or, as Cheng calls it, the mathematics of mathematics.

The wary reader may find this akin to an invitation to a vegan Thanksgiving dinner, with seaweed-stuffed rutabaga as the main course.

There is no dishonor in admitting that category theory is baffling, pretty much like like why someone would make a nacho chip out of kale. My best guess – really just a vague estimation – is that category theory is an attempt by mathematicians to make order out of the diagrams, arrows and axioms that have bewildered people for generations and, in more recent times, driven people to the refrigerator to munch on leftovers.

Category theorists like Cheng grow excited when they see mathematical formulas work their way into more than one math puzzle, like pizza crumbs strewn all over the house after a sleepover. This enables them to create a category, lumping together the appetizer, palate cleanser and salad. Category theorists get even more weepy when they peel back the onion and see similarities between different categories.

Who cares, you say. We all do, even if we don’t realize it. Math is society’s junk food. We eat it even when we hate it.

Hey, mathematicians “discovered” a ninth planet in our solar system. And this was after another mathematician was responsible for discovering Pluto, which astronomers, perhaps out of envy, downgraded to a dwarf planet.

binary-logoWe are surrounded by math. The computers we type on and the smartphones we thumb wouldn’t work without the binary system of off (0) and on (1). The planes we fly in wouldn’t reach their intended destinations without trigonometry. The food we cook in our microwaves would be either undone or incinerated if we didn’t dial in the right amount of time.

A favorite personal memory is of a high school math teacher who participated in a summer “internship” with a local phone company. She spent one day with a telephone lineman and was amazed to see his applied use of math skills. She also was struck with the reality that the phone whirl be useless unless the lineman wrote down the phone number correctly. When the teacher returned to her classroom, she stopped giving partial credit to students who get the theory right, but mess up the arithmetic.

How to Bake PI Book CoverI’m not sure what category to put that anecdote in, but it belongs somewhere. If for no other reason than to prove that no matter how exotic the math, being able to write down the right numbers in the right order still matters.

Perhaps that’s the underlying message in Cheng’s book. Math is as much a part of our lives as apple pie, and anybody can learn to bake π and gobble it down with ice cream.


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