When high school student Gracie Cunningham created her now-viral TikTok where she questioned the existence of math, she never anticipated it would invoke such a strong reaction and create major debate online.
“I feel like half the people are with me and half are against [me] so it’s confusing trying to figure out which to focus on," she told BuzzFeed News.
In the original TikTok, Cunningham mused over the discovery of math as she did her everyday makeup routine while getting ready for work.
“I know it’s real because we all learned it in school or whatever. But who came up with this concept?” she asked.
The teenager questioned what events would have led to or called for the use of mathematical concepts like algebra.
“I get, like, 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?” said Cunningham.
Days after posting it on her TikTok, the video was shared on Twitter by another user with the caption: “this is the dumbest video ive ever seen.”
It was viewed more than 25 million times, and the 16-year-old told BuzzFeed News the onslaught of comments left her feeling anxious.
“Honestly it’s just an awful reminder that the internet hates teenage girls for anything they do," she said.
Cunningham attempted to clarify by creating a follow-up TikTok.
“Hi, folks, I'd like to redo my TikTok about how math is not real and I’d like to be smart this time because I didn't know that one was going to go viral,” she joked in the video.
The teen said if her detractors “think that’s stupid that’s on them — it’s just curiosity.”
“Also, the literal mathematicians and astrophysicists that were replying to me — that was wild because they were all on my side," she added.
Among those who defended Cunningham was Chicago-based mathematician Eugenia Cheng, who responded to her burning questions with a detailed two-page reply.
In an email to BuzzFeed News, Cheng wrote: “I felt compelled to answer the questions because I think they're really good questions that are not typically addressed in normal math education. And I think they should be! But they are difficult to answer well, as they are, in a way, deep research-level questions."
Cheng, who is the author of x+y: A Mathematician's Manifesto for Rethinking Gender, described Cunningham's line of questioning as “profound.”
She said: “Her thoughts and questions are the kinds of things that research mathematicians think about all the time, and I believe it's what drives us to do research: we are not satisfied with basic answers and we keep wanting to ask why, more and more, to get deeper and deeper into the root of a question. The detractors might be proud of themselves for being able to do, say, 63 x 17 in their head, but research mathematicians ask why — why is the answer 1,071? That's a profound question, and comes down to definitions in the foundations of math which took mathematicians thousands of years to arrive at.”
In response to Cheng’s attempt to better explain the concept of math, Cunningham said: “I thought it was nice that she answered them. I mean, I still don’t get how someone sat down and was like ‘lemme discover math’ 'cause that’s insane to me.”
The academic shared that she would be open to having “further discussion” with the curious teenager about math or "anything else, if she ever wanted to.”