Among the millions of videos circulating TikTok, it is unsurprising that relatively few are about mathematics, let alone the various philosophical theories that seek to argue and justify its very purpose. That was until last week, when American teenager Gracie Cunningham unknowingly stumbled onto arguably one of the biggest questions of mathematical philosophy, while casually chatting away as she did her make-up for a TikTok video.

“I was just doing my make-up for work and I just wanted to tell you guys that I don’t think maths was real”

Her informal interpretation of the purpose of mathematics and the way in which it was created, mostly in questioning the motives of Pythagoras, proved popular among TikTok viewers, racking up over a million views. Many however interpreted Gracie’s casual disregard for that purpose as a lack of understanding and were quick to share the video on Twitter to mock her, the kinder reviews stating it was ‘The dumbest video they’d ever seen’. A bit harsh for a 16 year old.

However this exposure meant that Gracie’s questions also reached the mathematics and philosophy communities on Twitter who were keen to defend the video as her take on mathematical realism (whether she knew this is what it was or not) rather than mock the inaccuracies in her argument.

“I get addition, like if I take two apples and add 3 it’s 5 you know. But like how would you even come up with the concept of algebra, like what would you need it for?”

Hopefully, this episode will inspire, rather than discourage, students to ask questions and study philosophy, as it is quite literally the discussion behind ‘why’ we do anything. Gracie seems to have bounced back from her negative press, potentially comforted by the fact she gained support from some top mathematicians, but if you’re looking for further philosophical insight unfortunately she’s taken a bit of a break; and in any case, TikTok might not be the best place to look…

Maths in the media…

-          There’s many variables in the Covid transmission equation and talking is one of them.

-          Harry Potter meets Graph theory!

-          YouTube mathematicians present their favourite numbers over 1 million. This one is definitely over, as well as an interesting introduction to group theory.

-          A Pythagorean triple a day keeps the doctor away…