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This viral makeup TikTok raises fair questions about whether math is real

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While filming herself getting ready for work recently, TikTok user @gracie.ham reached deep into the ancient foundations of mathematics and found an absolute gem of a question:

How could someone come up with a concept like algebra?

She also asked what the ancient Greek philosopher Pythagoras might have used mathematics for, and other questions that revolve around the age-old conundrum of whether mathematics is “real” or something humans just made up.

Many responded negatively to the post, but others — including mathematicians like me — found the questions quite insightful.

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Is mathematics real?

Philosophers and mathematicians have been arguing over this for centuries. Some believe mathematics is universal; others consider it only as real as anything else humans have invented.

Thanks to @gracie.ham, Twitter users have now vigorously joined the debate.

For me, part of the answer lies in history.

From one perspective, mathematics is a universal language used to describe the world around us. For instance, two apples plus three apples is always five apples, regardless of your point of view.

But mathematics is also a language used by humans, so it is not independent of culture. History shows us that different cultures had their own understanding of mathematics.

Unfortunately, most of this ancient understanding is now lost. In just about every ancient culture, a few scattered texts are all that remain of their scientific knowledge.

However, there is one ancient culture that left behind an absolute abundance of texts.

Babylonian algebra

Buried in the deserts of modern Iraq, clay tablets from ancient Babylon have survived intact for about 4,000 years.

These tablets are slowly being translated and what we have learned so far is that the Babylonians were practical people who were highly numerate and knew how to solve sophisticated problems with numbers.

Their arithmetic was different from ours, though. They didn’t use zero or negative numbers. They even mapped out the motion of the planets without using calculus as we do.

Of particular importance for @gracie.ham’s question about the origins of algebra is that they knew that the numbers 3, 4, and 5 correspond to the lengths of the sides and diagonal of a rectangle. They also knew these numbers satisfied the fundamental relation 3² + 4² = 5² that ensures the sides are perpendicular.

This viral makeup TikTok raises fair questions about whether math is real 2