Pi is delicious — and other math lessons you’ll be happy to learn

Studio 360

Math could use a brand ambassador. Educators are hotly debating how much math needs to be taught in schools, and recent studies have shown that our math anxiety can last well into adulthood, affecting even how our children learn the subject. Math needs a friendly face — and that’s where Eugenia Cheng comes in.

Cheng is the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s energetic scientist-in-residence, and she thinks math is elegant, beautiful and even delicious. In her classes at the Art Institute, she teaches painters and sculptors that math is a creative process. For the rest of us, she’s written a book, “How to Bake Pi,” which uses the example of warm, baked goods (and other treats) to illustrate mathematical concepts.

For Cheng, the line connecting mathematics and baking is pretty clear: Both are messy, fun experiments.

“There are so many desserts you can make with basically the same ingredients,” she says. “You just put them together in different ways. And math is a bit like that. You take some basic ingredients — numbers or shapes — and then you put them together in some fantastic ways. It's really more about the method … not just the end result.”

The baking analogy dawned on her when she was teaching math to undergraduates, many of whom were struggling to connect with the concepts covered in class. Her students, turned off by years of memorizing formulas, couldn’t relate to the subject. Cheng can hardly blame them.

“If you're learning something and you have no emotional connection with it, then it's very hard for it to stick,” she says. “And so when I compare [math] with food, it gives everyone a way of feeling an emotional connection with it.”

In class, Cheng sometimes guides her students through projects that don’t have “answers” at all, which she says is closer to what mathematical research is really like. “So, it's not about getting the right answer,” she says. “It's about exploring the situation. And then whatever you discover about the situation is valid.”

Likewise, in her book, Cheng keeps the same focus on using imagination, this time to combine kitchen ingredients — and numbers. She baked gooey chocolate lava cakes with Studio 360’s Kurt Andersen to show how it’s done. The first principle of cakes? Don’t bother memorizing a recipe.

“If you start with an equal weight of every ingredient then it's about right,” she says.

Being well-versed in baking methods means that we’re free to experiment with ingredients — similar to what we can do with numbers once we understand the foundations of math, she says. Find yourself suddenly hosting friends for dinner, and you don’t have a clue what to serve them?

“You can just find stuff in your kitchen and invent something using the basic principles that you know,” she says. “If you understand the principles, then you can mess around knowing which principles you need to stick to and which ones you should [or] can mess with.”

Having a firm grasp on the basic principles of baking and math allows us to invent things under all sorts of circumstances, Cheng says. This is why we do math, and it’s why math can help us understand other complex concepts like shapes, or space-time, or baseball. 

“People think math is about numbers. But we understand the principles behind numbers so that we can work with things that aren't numbers, and see if they can be treated in the same kind of way,” she says.

It’s a lot to think about — best to start with a chocolatey lava cake.

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI's Studio 360 with Kurt Andersen.

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