Some viral tweets live in their moment alone and others explode all across the Internet, starting a chain of debate at a level they did not intend. High school student Grace Cunningham probably didn’t intend to set off blood feuds in the math community when she posted some philosophical questions to TikTok, but that’s what happened.

In her original TikTok, Cunningham asks some questions about math. I, personally, try to think about math as little as possible, so I am not on Grace’s level. Here are her thought-provoking queries:

@gracie.hamthis video makes sense in my head but like WHY DID WE CREATE THIS STUFF♬ original sound – gracie.ham

“I know it’s real because we all learned it in school or whatever. But who came up with this concept? And you’ll be like ‘Pythagoras.’ But how? How did he come up with this? He was living in the, I don’t know whenever he was living, but it was not now, where you can have, like technology and stuff, you know. I get an addition. Like hey, if you take two apples and add three, it’s five. But how would you come up with the concept of, like, algebra? What would you need it for?”

These are actually questions commonly discussed in philosophy or math circles, because math isn’t easy to understand and many of the higher levels of math learning are more about theory than practical application. But because she’s a teen girl applying makeup, her TikTok got downloaded and posted to Twitter by someone named @aIeturner, who captioned it, “this is the dumbest video ive ever seen.”

## Babe, have you ever seen the Internet? This isn’t the dumbest video by a long shot.

it’s one of the worst elements of the internet that an anonymous teenage girl will be publicly ridiculed by hundreds of thousands of strangers for whatever random algorithmic reason. And again: these are GOOD QUESTIONS FOR A HIGH SCHOOL KID TO ASK!https://t.co/MMuEspceIg

— Dana Schwartz (@DanaSchwartzzz) August 27, 2020

## That person has deleted that tweet, though it was captured by KnowYourMeme, because a lot of people stepped in to defend her and answer some of her questions:

These are really good questions about what math *is* in a very deeply probing way. Unfortunately the haters are piling in… I have transcribed the questions and typed up my instant answers here. https://t.co/KdKX7enCMh https://t.co/Ds4VqecAlu

— Dr Eugenia Cheng (@DrEugeniaCheng) August 27, 2020

One of the great things about math is that it equips you to see the unseen: things otherwise invisible. There’s structure—patterns—all around us, governing the motion of planets, the spread of a virus, the data that Netflix uses to guess what you want to watch next. 2/

— Francis Su (@mathyawp) August 27, 2020

A formula is nothing more than a pattern: a relationship between quantities like the radius (of a pizza you order) & area (you eat). When you first search for a pattern you don’t know what you’ll find in advance (though with experience you might have an educated guess). 4/

— Francis Su (@mathyawp) August 27, 2020

Notice what I just said: you know a formula is true when YOU YOURSELF (not just other people) understand it. Math demands an investment of your thinking in order to behold its wonder. But it’s worth it, and better than the version of math that is just memorizing stuff. 6/

— Francis Su (@mathyawp) August 27, 2020

I remember beginning to love math when I saw this ‘proof’ that the area of a circle is pi*r^2 (see Wikipedia image). Slice pizza into thin wedges, rearrange in rectangular way, note height is r and width is about pi*r (half circumference). So area is pi*r^2, approximately 8/ pic.twitter.com/OmXVEnNQj4

— Francis Su (@mathyawp) August 27, 2020

So every time you see a formula, remember it’s the culmination of many repeated attempts to unlock a mystery, a triumph by each person who, like you, earnestly asks ‘why’ and endeavors to understand its rightness for themselves. End/

— Francis Su (@mathyawp) August 27, 2020

And, it turns out there is a lot of disagreement on whether or not math is real, even amongst mathematicians:

I will physically fight anyone who thinks this https://t.co/ioAz4t44MB

— Keegs🏳️🌈 (@LittleKeegs0) August 27, 2020

TikTok drag queen Kyne, who posts mainly about math, tried to answer her questions, too, coming down on the side of math being real because many different cultures came to similar conclusions separately around the same time:

@onlinekyne##duet with @gracie.ham here’s my response to this video about the philosophy of math! How did it come to be? And how do we know it’s true? ##math♬ original sound – gracie.ham

@onlinekyne##duet with @gracie.ham part 2 on which I expand on the philosophy of ##math ! Is math even real? Does it even matter? ##edutok ##learnontiktok♬ original sound – gracie.ham

Many others said the response to Grace was pretty sexist, and her questions would have been taken more seriously if she were a man.

Testing a theory. I don’t think the original video was dumb at all, I think when an American teenage girl says something people interpret it differently to the same words coming from a British man in his thirties. What do you think? #mathisntreal @graciegcunning https://t.co/BxCIjDifCx pic.twitter.com/DiC9VX5gyD

— Bill Hayes (@billdotmu) August 27, 2020

Grace told the Mary Sue that the most painful accusation she was met with was being called racist for attributing algebra to Pythagoras, rather than Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi, who is not often discussed in the U.S., but is considered the true creator or algebra.

“I’m aware that he wasn’t white and so clearly doesn’t get the attention he deserves,” she said. “But it was never my intent to seem like I was devaluing his work.”

Unfortunately, the Internet is a place that tends to prioritize polarization and rage over nuanced debate and genuine curiosity. If you find yourself screaming at teenagers for questioning complicated concepts in an attempt to learn more, maybe log off for a while.

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