This professor’s foodie concepts make mathematics easy to swallow

10 May 2016

Dr Eugenia Cheng. Photo via Round Turner Photography/

Dr Eugenia Cheng’s mathematical treats are more than just slices of Pi, and her entertaining outlook makes this complex subject easy to digest.

There are many words the general public might use to describe mathematics – difficult, obscure, confusing, boring – but Dr Eugenia Cheng might say ‘tasty’.

Cheng is an associate professor of pure mathematics, the converse of applied mathematics, at the University of Sheffield, and currently serves as scientist in residence at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Her chosen field of mathematics can seem particularly inaccessible as it involves the study of entirely abstract concepts.

As well as a maths enthusiast, Cheng is an accomplished pianist and a pretty handy baker, and it’s this latter skillset that she has used to sweeten the concept of learning complex mathematical theories.

While maths is often seen as a dense, impenetrable, treacle-like subject, Cheng’s energy and quick wit makes it as light and fluffy as a flaky pastry.

Frustrated by negative attitudes to her chosen field of study, Cheng has been creating YouTube videos explaining maths at different levels for years, but she has really found her strength in serving it up with a side plate of foodie concepts, such as her mathematical proof that clotted cream is better than whipped cream, her tips on pouring the perfect glass of wine, and her investigation into the perfect size for a pizza.

Thanks to Cheng, brain-food can actually be edible – such as this mind-bending Möbius strip bagel, making the most of that cream cheese and salmon topping.

Cheng’s book, How to Bake Pi: An edible exploration of the mathematics of mathematics (or Cakes, Custard and Category Theory: Easy recipes for complex maths in the UK), is being translated into six languages and has just been released in paperback. On the back of its success, she has earned fame as a maths communicator, taking on the TEDx stage, a New York Times profile, and even a late-night chat with Stephen Colbert.

This summer, she’s set to launch a new web series along with the Chicago’s Francis W Parker School, feeding our brains with hexagonal biscuits, Möbius tortillas and much more mouthwatering maths in the process.

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Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.