In conversation with the concert pianist revolutionising the way we view maths

With a passion for numbers and a love of food, Dr Eugenia Cheng is best known for sharing her love of numeracy through baking. She has combined well known recipes with complex mathematical theories to break down misunderstood concepts to the maths averse in her most well known book How to Bake Pi. Eugenia is also an award winning pianist, specialising in Lieder and art song.

Photograph courtesy of Paul Crisanti of PhotoGetGo.

In England, the mathematical ability of children from disadvantaged backgrounds is far behind that of children in several other countries around the world. It is fair to say that in popular culture, it is fashionable to dislike maths and research has shown that grouping by ability early on in school life can have a negative effect on pupils’ feelings about the subject. But is it all about teaching the next generation how to pass tests and beat international competition or is harnessing a love of mathematics far more important? We put these questions to Eugenia to find out what she thought.

You’ve said in the past that you found mathematics at school boring. Why was this?

In those days – and I fear still now – the curriculum was very focussed on arithmetic. We had to find the correct answer to questions that were either meaningless or an attempt to relate to ‘real life’ but were terribly contrived. These objectives left little room for exploration, discovery or imagination. The only things I enjoyed were GCSE investigations where we could go away, explore a question and take it as far as we wanted. During one A-level assignment, our teacher taught us about the polar coordinate system (where you plot things on a circular grid instead of a right-angled X/Y axis grid) and then asked us to investigate and write up anything we wanted about it. I really enjoyed that. I like working on things where the ‘sky’s the limit’, rather than the right answer being the limit.

Your mother helped to ignite your passion for the subject. What sort of ideas did she have that helped spark your interest?

She showed me interesting mathematical ideas when I was very young, like the idea of drawing a graph. Not how to draw them, but the idea that you could turn a process (say, squaring) into a picture. I found that fascinating. I think that isn’t stressed enough when we teach graphs to students, and again it becomes about getting the ‘right’ answer. The idea of why it’s an amazing concept gets lost.

Some people believe that mathematics has a real image problem. Do you feel there is any truth to this?

Yes, it’s a big problem. Mathematicians portrayed in the media and films tend to be older white men who are socially inept and possibly a bit mad. I suspect they do that because they think it makes more interesting drama. Or to make people feel better about not being good at those things. For example, in both Conran Doyle’s book and the recent televised Sherlock Holmes series, Holmes is portrayed as being socially awkward. Why? I fear it’s so that we can all say, “Well, I’m not as brilliant as that but at least I’m better at making friends.” It also gives people the impression that to be good at maths you have to be socially awkward. It may be putting people off maths. That’s one reason I’ve put myself out there as an example of a mathematician who is – I hope – not like all those other stereotypes. To show that it is possible. Yes, there are some mathematicians who are like that, but there are plenty who aren’t. I’m always encouraging different types of people to put themselves out there as examples too.

Many women feel that even today, there are several barriers to their success. Do you feel that progress is being made? What more needs to be done?

We have made some progress since the days women weren’t allowed to have degrees, or when there were no women’s toilets in departments. However, that is a rather low baseline. I think that progress isn’t being made nearly fast enough. The structures and definitions of success have all been made by men and women are still trying to succeed on men’s terms. Actually I think we should separate out what issues are really to do with gender (such as sexism and sexual harassment) and which barriers are more to do with character traits, such as the idea of competition, status, presenteeism, self-aggrandisement. Women are often advised (albeit not so bluntly) to learn to be more like men in order to succeed. I would like us to change the routes to success instead. I want more emphasis to be placed on collaboration than competition, and to value people not by how much better they are than others, but by how much they are able to help others do better.

You are also a piano maestro. Do you see a crossover between the world of mathematics and music?

That’s a huge topic! For me maths is about logical structures, and there are tons of those in classical music. (I am a classical musician and can’t speak for other types of music.) Seeing logical structures helps us understand complex situations by understanding how they fit together, and that’s true in both maths and music.

What would be your message to parents struggling to make maths fun for their children?

First of all I want to acknowledge that a lot of the maths curriculum is not very interesting. The poor teachers are stuck teaching it and trying to get children through all these rounds of tests, which is a terrible burden and in my opinion should not be the point of education at all. I think it’s more productive to agree with children that the work they are given at school is not very interesting and to show them that this is not the whole of maths. The parents themselves need to be convinced that this is not the point of maths, and that’s why I’ve been writing books about it. My first book in particular, How to Bake Pi, is about all sorts of aspects of maths that have very little to do with the standard school curriculum. I wish we could change the curriculum, but in the meantime I’ll keep writing books to try and help with that outside the system.

The other thing that is important is that if you have a fear of maths yourself you could unwittingly be passing that on to your children. So if you don’t want to do that, it’s important to try and get over that fear first! Remember if you found maths hard at school or didn’t like it, it’s not your fault. It’s the fault of the curriculum, or the fact that nobody explained it to you properly.

Hand on heart, do you really prefer Pi over pie?

I don’t feel the need to pick! I like them both. However, Pi has fewer calories.