I can’t wait to get home tonight and listen to the Eugenia Cheng on Radio 4 this morning again, but this time with my 13-yr-old daughter. It is so refreshing to hear someone have such a passion for what he/she does. And to explain it in a way that is ACCESSIBLE to all.
She’s very funny when talking about the misconceptions the public has of mathematicians: “I’m not one of those people who can multiply large numbers in my head,” she laughs, “No! That’s not what we do all day!”
Replace those preconceived notions with new ones: 1) maths is not boring 2) you can have an interesting and well-paying job in maths 3) you can travel the globe with a maths job 4) maths is not just for boys.
It’s almost a half-hour long but flies by. Here are my key takeaways:
- Eugenia is on a mission of ridding the world of maths phobia
- Maths & baking have lots of similarities (as well as maths & music) — in both you are putting together a lot of ingredients and seeing whether they work or not.
- You use lots of maths in baking. A mille feuille (delicious French pastry they often attempt on GBBO) involves rolling a pastry out and then folding it into 3, and then you roll it out again and fold into 3 again. You just need to do this 6 times and you have made more than a 1000 layers (ergo the name).
- Feeling confused about math along the way? This is part of the path. Your brain will stretch. Her childhood piano teacher would give her pieces that were way to hard for her. She practiced and practiced and once she got to a point where she was just mastering it, her teacher would give her another, even harder piece. Maths is the same. At first it’s confusing and too hard. And then it’s not.
- She goes to bars to work on her maths (love that!)
- Good maths comes out of being lazy. It’s not about getting the right answers. She explains to her students: to be more efficient is to be lazy. You don’t want to do the same thing over and over again so then you think, why do this over again? So let’s come up with a theory so that we don’t have to do it over and over — we’ve made it easier, quicker, simpler that way. More efficient.
- Combine your passions for something you like to do. Recognise your strengths that are unique to you. Her mother was “searingly” logical and her Dad was intuitive, and she feels like she got both those qualities.
- Don’t listen to stereotypes.
On these last two takeaways, her wise words are worth delving into further.
COMBINE YOURS STRENGTHS
One of the things I’ve told my university students over the years is that I had no idea what I wanted to do after graduation. I was not one of those people who knew at the age of 16 what I wanted to do or be.
I’ve also told my students that you need to think about your strengths and use them. What makes you unique? I was smart enough but not very academic. And definitely not the smartest. I was told I was a “people person”, which I came to hate after a while. What the heck am I going to do with that? I thought.
But here’s where she crystallises what I came to realise after years of transitioning from one job to another. I was gravitating towards my strengths and applying them. On paper, yes, I have had an amazing career — surpassing any and all expectations — living and working in Argentina on my own; working in the White House; working at ABC News/Nightline, with 5 Emmys, a Peabody and a Thurgood Marshall Award for Justice to remind me of all the hard, but worthy, work; working at Foreign Policy magazine; and here in London with IES and Global Change Network. But in each of these positions, I combined strengths, priorities and environment to figure out the best path.
Eugenia makes her path sound so simple. She started GCSE’s doing maths and physics. But then she thought ‘what if I only did maths? Because that’s what I really like’. So she did just maths for her A-levels. At Cambridge, she thought ‘I really like pure maths, not applied maths’ What if I just focus on that? So she narrowed her courses. Before graduating, she thought it’d be really nice to do just algebra. Because that’s what she loves most. For her Master’s, it was category theory that captivated her. For her PhD she decided on higher dimension category theory. My high school’s motto was “Viam inveniam aut faciam” which is Latin for “I shall either find a way or make one”, something Eugenia clearly ascribed to.
After securing a Professorship at the University of Sheffield, she decided to leave. Kudos to interviewer Jim Al-Khalili for pushing her on this decision. Her response encapsulates what my subconscious told me all along (paraphrasing):
“How do I make my own way and have more effect? So I took the category theory approach to life. If you can’t be the biggest fish in the pond, what do you do? You can either grow or move to a smaller pond. In category theory, you move to the smaller pond and look at more characteristics. I’m not the best mathematician in the world and I’m not the best public speaker in the world. But maybe I could be the best at both: a mathematician who is also a public speaker. The more things you pile on the more likely you are going to be the best of those unique combination of things.”
She wanted to do maths and communications. She said “find all the things you are good at. Make a list. And figure out how to bring all those things together.” She said if she stopped teaching, someone would easily take her place. But someone who can explain maths to non-mathematicians in an accessible way is unique.
Admittedly, when she mentioned she was of Chinese origin with a mathematician mother I immediately, and wrongly, thought Ah, well, that’s it. High-achieving parents, extremely disciplined, driven kids – no wonder. She did say she and her sister would fight over who got to practice on the piano (just the opposite of my sister & I — my Mom would make us sit down to practice for an hour or no dinner). But the overall context of her message is not who’s going to be hard-working or over-achieving or the best, it’s more about figuring out all the things you are good at and what makes you happy.
Like Eugenia, I had parents that always instilled in me and my sister that we could be or do anything a man could. We both had no hesitation going out into the world and seeking a career, a profession, rather than a job.
From a very young age, Eugenia watched her Mom put on a suit and go to the City with briefcase in hand. Her Dad and sister would wait at the train to pick her up – a lone female amongst all the males. And it wasn’t until much later that she realised how unusual this was.
Before going to Cambridge, she was warned by her director of studies that it would be male-dominated and full of boys who will all be better than you. They will have been pushed very hard to overachieve. She thought she’d be the worst, so she was pleasantly surprised when she wasn’t the absolute worst in the class. “I had to learn to deal with their arrogance. They had been pushed hard and when they got there they breezed through. And I was surprised when later, my perseverance was helpful. As we had to work incredibly hard for our PhD’s, they had forgotten how to work hard and they fell by the wayside and I carried on.” She knocked down those stereotypes without flinching.
Kudos to Jim Al-Khalili for bringing the best out of her — he clearly loves this issue. Eugenia says “Who is combatting stereotypes of mathematicians? People assume to be a mathematician you have to be old and weird and have no friends; they must be older white guys who can’t make eye contact or are socially inept. Who will help rid the world of maths phobia with a message for the broader audience?” That is the void she hopes to fill. With this interview, she smashed it.