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To the Mathematician Eugenia Cheng, There’s No Gap Between Art and Science


You’re the “scientist in residence” at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. How do you bridge science and art, and what’s your favorite book to discuss with your students?

Well I must admit: mine! I wrote my first book, “How to Bake Pi,” as my dream of a liberal arts math course that I thought I would never have the chance to teach, as I had tenure in the U.K., where liberal arts math is not really done (and certainly not at my university, despite my attempts to initiate it). So when I actually did have the opportunity to teach such a course, I had my ideal textbook already prepared. My third book, “The Art of Logic,” was the result of several iterations of developing that material for the actual students. The art students turned out to be, in my experience, most motivated by questions of politics and social justice. So I gradually developed material for them using those sorts of questions as an arena for mathematical investigation. I realized that I use the tools of abstract mathematics to get a much clearer understanding of those issues, and in clarifying and explaining how I do it I attained an even clearer understanding of math and social questions, as did my students.

It’s easier to “bridge” science and art when you don’t really think there’s a gap between them in the first place, as I don’t. The boundaries between subjects are really artificial constructs by humans, like the boundaries between colors in a rainbow.

What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently?

I learned many things from Elaine Castillo’s deep and rich novel “America Is Not the Heart,” a saga of several generations of Filipino-Americans in California. It’s about culture and alienation, at all levels: from one’s family, one’s country, one’s community, one’s profession, and for many reasons including politics, money, skin color, sexual orientation. The specific nugget of information I learned was that doctors from other countries are not allowed to practice as doctors in the U.S., no matter how expert, experienced and well qualified they are, without completely retraining from scratch. As a result being a nurse is a smoother path to immigration than being a doctor, and some doctors end up either in unskilled work or in medical-adjacent professions such as the medical sciences in a lab.

Which subjects do you wish more authors would write about?

I wish more authors would write about strong women, beyond the strength and importance of motherhood, but not just emulating traditional male behavior. This is what I call congressive strength, which is not about being physically strong and aggressive, or daring and heroic, or rich and powerful, but more about bringing people together, and transforming oneself and society through deep understanding, insight and unity. Men can show this kind of strength too, but I particularly long for books with strong women in this sense.

Do you prefer books that reach you emotionally, or intellectually?

Both at the same time. I don’t see these things as a dichotomy. In fact for me they are intimately related. Intellectual stimulation is an emotional experience for me, and something will only be a really deeply emotionally experience for me if it engages me intellectually as well.

Which genres do you especially enjoy reading? And which do you avoid?

I love reading novels, which for some reason seems to surprise people. However, I am getting increasingly picky about the subject matter and types of protagonists I want to see in novels, and it’s hard to find ones that fit. I like novels that give me insight into human nature, and that don’t rest solely on suspense and plot constructions, the kind of book I can read hundreds of times and still enjoy although (or indeed because) I already know what’s going to happen. I have read “Pride and Prejudice” perhaps twice a year since I was 11! I love a good murder mystery, as long as it has those insights into human nature. I quite often reread Agatha Christie. I loved reading her when I was growing up, and as an adult I notice a surprising amount of insight into human nature in them (along with, alas, some egregiously bigoted and/or imperialist views that might be considered typical of her era). She is also surprisingly feminist for the time, with quite a quantity of strong female characters and indeed female mathematicians!



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