Sunday Sitdown: Eugenia Cheng, a math maven amid art students

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Eugenia Cheng, scientist-in-residence at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. | Lou Foglia / Sun-Times

Math class at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago might not be what you expect. That’s thanks to teacher Eugenia Cheng, a Ph.D. in theoretical mathematics, a classically trained pianist and skilled cook who teaches the popular “The Elegance of Abstraction” math class as the school’s scientist-in-residence. Cheng, 39, aims to get students thinking creatively about what, for many, is an intimidating subject. You get a sense of her approach from the title of her book, “How to Bake π: An Edible Exploration of the Mathematics of Mathematics,” a mainstream take that got her a spot on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” and also her much-viewed math tutorial videos on YouTube. She spoke with reporter Sandra Guy of the Chicago Sun-Times. An edited transcript follows.

Question: You want students to use math to understand their world in context. How do you do that?

Answer: At most universities, math is seen as useful. This burden of being useful drags us all down. If, instead, math is a way to open things up and shed light on things, that’s something art students love. The class is not about a set of formulae or topics or graphs or numbers. It’s showing how math is about abstract thinking and making connections.

We look at things all the time in context. One example is that we think 2 plus 2 always equals 4. But if you think of a clock with only the numbers 1, 2 and 3, moving ahead two steps from 2 takes you to 1.

Q: How should parents talk to their children about math?

A: Research shows parents can pass a fear of math to their children. The key is to talk about math by inserting it into family conversations all the time. I just automatically start dropping math concepts without thinking about it. For example, when you are making cutout sugar cookies, cut them out in different shapes and see if they fit together. Make up new shapes. Use hexagons. Use pentagons. Buy various cookie-cutter shapes to see if they fit together. That’s math.

Q: You love to cook, you like to eat — and you used mathematical concepts to lose weight. How’d that work?

A: I decided to lose weight when I started my Ph.D. at the University of Cambridge. I thought to myself, “Losing weight could not be as difficult as doing a PhD.” Later, I thought, “I can do rocket science, but I think losing weight is actually harder.”

I lost 50 pounds over nine months — and I have kept it off for 15 years.

It’s about understanding how you think. Those of us who have psychological connections with food, you have to deal with it.

I did experiments to see what would make a difference and what wouldn’t. I do high-impact exercises like sprints and fun jump exercises that get my pulse rate very high.

I learned to make my own chocolate. Now, if I’m tempted by a cake in a bakery window, I outweigh that cake by something better — my chocolate. It’s so much more delicious than anything I can think of.

RELATED CONTENT: Click here for Eugenia Cheng’s “The Mathsters” video tutorials

Q: What do you do for fun?

A: So many of my friends are musicians. I love going to their concerts.

There are famous institutions here, but I really love the small things people do because people want to do them.

My main way of listening to music is playing it. We gather in my piano studio and sing.

Bach is my favorite. His music is so beautiful but so structured. No matter how much I analyze it, there will always be something that will make me cry in an instant.

The most beautiful things in life are the interface between things we can understand with logic and those we can’t.

Q: You used your math strategy to leave a promising academic career in England, where you were a tenured professor at the University of Sheffield.

A: I was brought up to be sensible. I did a weighted pros-and-cons list. I ranked each pro and con and weighted it according to how important it was. There were more pros to staying in England — but the pros were all small. The pros of going to Chicago were giant. Those pros have all turned out.

I wrote a list of all the things I’m good at. How am I going to use those things to contribute to society? I rated them according to how much I was using them to contribute to the world. I wasn’t using enough of them. There’s still more I think I can do.

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