For the Love of Math

“We’re going to take a deep dive into intellectual discovery,” remarked Head of School Dr. Patricia Hayot as she introduced the evening’s special guest, Dr. Eugenia Cheng, Scientist In Residence at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, who served as this year’s Garcia Family Foundation Scholarship Series speaker.

Before her presentation at The River Club got underway, Dr. Cheng sat down at the piano and proceeded to play a gorgeous rendition of a Brahms piece, "Intermezzo in A, Op. 118."

As her exquisite performance revealed, Dr. Cheng is a masterful musician. She is also a brilliant mathematician who regards math as a creative, far-reaching and accessible field, one that has the tremendous potential to help us better understand our world.

In her engrossing talk on May 8 to members of the Chapin community, Dr. Cheng shared highlights from her 2018 book “The Art of Logic: How to Make Sense in a World That Doesn’t,” focusing on the ways logic offers clarity and insight into pressing social and political issues. The previous day, Dr. Cheng gave a similar address to Chapin’s professional community at a lively after-school gathering in the Gordon Room.

Above all else, Dr. Cheng is committed to eliminating widespread math phobia by making a compelling case for the discipline’s relevance and capacity for excitement and fun. Far from a dry, utilitarian subject designed to move from point A to point B, she emphasized, math provides endless opportunities to delight and illuminate.

Determined to introduce the beauty of mathematics to as many math-averse people as possible, this scholar left a tenured position at the University of Sheffield in the U.K., where she grew up, to move to the U.S. to teach math to art students at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Helping others, she noted, remains a deeply gratifying pursuit.

Along with teaching, she continues her groundbreaking research in the an area within abstract mathematics known as “category theory,” which, simply stated, looks at objects and how they relate to one another in sensible ways.

“I like asking why things happen. That’s what math is about,” said Dr. Cheng, whose widely popular YouTube math videos have been viewed more than 15 million times so far. She is also the author of two earlier books, “How to Bake Pi” and “Beyond Infinity.”

Using interactive slides to illustrate her points, Dr. Cheng organized her thoughts into five distinct themes: analogies, interconnectedness, relationships, pivots and intelligence. Within these areas, she discussed a dizzying array of topics from the mundane to the provocative – including fruits and vegetables, gay marriage, the breakdown of relationships, police violence, weight gain, and the 2016 presidential election. As explained through the lenses of logic and math, these issues resonated in exhilarating ways.

Toward the end of her inspiring and uplifting presentation, Dr. Cheng emphasized that math and human emotion can share a powerful, perhaps unexpected, relationship. “We can use abstract math to help us with empathy [even though] math and empathy are not usually in the same sentence,” she remarked. In addition, “applied math can help us go out into the world and be intelligent.”

After questions from the audience, followed by a resounding round of applause, Dr. Hayot returned to the podium to express her gratitude to Dr. Cheng. “If your self-esteem grows from helping others, it should be soaring this evening because you were fabulous!” she declared.

Thanks to this creative and compassionate mathematician, the Chapin community discovered new strategies for thinking about math – and making sense of our complex world.

Browse photos from the event below: