# What Is Math?

## A teenager asked that age-old question on TikTok, creating a viral backlash, and then, a thoughtful scientific debate

published : 14 February 2024

It all started with an innocuous TikTok video posted by a high school student named **Gracie Cunningham**. Applying make-up while speaking into the camera, the teenager questioned whether math is “real.” She added: “I know it’s real, because we all learn it in school... but who came up with this concept?” **Pythagoras**, she muses, “didn’t even have plumbing—and he was like, ‘Let me worry about y = mx + b’”—referring to the equation describing a straight line on a two-dimensional plane. She wondered where it all came from. “I get addition,” she said, “but how would you come up with the concept of algebra? What would you need it for?”

Someone re-posted the video to Twitter, where it soon went viral. Many of the comments were unkind: One person said it was the “dumbest video” they had ever seen; others suggested it was indicative of a failed education system. Others, meanwhile, came to Cunningham’s defense, saying that her questions were actually rather profound.

Mathematicians from **Cornell** and from the **University of Wisconsin** weighed in, as did philosopher **Philip Goff** of **Durham University** in the U.K. Mathematician **Eugenia Cheng**, currently the scientist-in-residence at the **Art Institute of Chicago**, wrote a two-page reply and said Cunningham had raised profound questions about the nature of mathematics “in a very deeply probing way.”

Cunningham had unwittingly re-ignited a very ancient and unresolved debate in the philosophy of science. What, exactly, is math? Is it invented, or discovered? And are the things that mathematicians work with—numbers, algebraic equations, geometry, theorems and so on—real?

Some scholars feel very strongly that mathematical truths are “out there,” waiting to be discovered—a position known as **Platonism**. It takes its name from the ancient Greek thinker **Plato**, who imagined that mathematical truths inhabit a world of their own—not a physical world, but rather a non-physical realm of unchanging perfection; a realm that exists outside of space and time. **Roger Penrose**, the renowned British mathematical physicist, is a staunch Platonist. In *The Emperor’s New Mind*, he wrote that there appears “to be some profound reality about these mathematical concepts, going quite beyond the mental deliberations of any particular mathematician. It is as though human thought is, instead, being guided towards some external truth—a truth which has a reality of its own...”