Maths Week: Pianist on a numerical mission

Dr Eugenia Cheng using music and the baking of cupcakes to make sense of illogical world

Dr Eugenia Cheng is a woman on a mission. She wants to end people's fearfulness of mathematics and uses music and the baking of cupcakes to accomplish this.

“I love maths and it makes me sad that people are afraid of it,” said Dr Cheng, senior lecturer in pure mathematics at the University of Sheffield. “It is an important subject because it is at the root of all logical thinking and the world is getting less logical.”

Maths is all around us in technology and buildings and our mobile phones but people can’t see it and so have no appreciation for it. “Maths is taught too often as a set of rules you just have to follow, but it is more fun if you make things up,” she said on Wednesday.

"For me the beauty of maths is how ideas fit together. You can use very simple ideas to build complicated ideas."


But this is not so far removed from baking. “Baking is a similar kind of process.” When you bake you can do anything you want so long as you follow the basic rules.

Making cupcakes can be done using little more than flour, sugar and water, but you are applying a technique to create something almost magical, she said. The same is true for music, said Dr Cheng who is also a concert pianist. “I like to show how different things that seem unrelated are joined with maths, for example the structure of music.”

With maths if you take a step back and stop looking at the fine details you can achieve a greater insight into it, she said. “It is like forgetting the details of the music to see the overall patterns and there are a lot of patterns in music.”

Not everyone will teach pure maths but everyone is capable of at least some maths, she said. “Everyone can do more maths than they think. I wish everybody would appreciate it more. People can appreciate music even if can’t play it and they can appreciate sport even if they don’t play.”

Dr Cheng is currently Scientist in Residence at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and tries to demystify maths in her book, Cakes, Custard and Category Theory.

She visits Dublin on Friday as part of Maths Week and will perform at the National Concert Hall at 10am. Tickets are free for students and the general public but booking is essential by phoning 01 417-000 or online at

More details about Maths Week at

Daily Maths Week puzzle

A Weighty Puzzle:

Fred arrives at the bar and his four friends are talking about weight.

“How much does everybody weigh?” He asks.

Sean answered him. “We’d rather not say but our average weight is 72kg. What’s your weight?”

“I’d rather not say either,” answered Fred. “But I can tell you that the average weight of the group is now 76kg.”

How much does Fred weigh?


The answer is down the page.

No peeking.

Do not scroll down to it.

No matter how tempting.

Yes, that includes you.


No looking.

Got it yet?

Answer: Fred weighs 92kg


The average of four friends is 72 kg therefore their total weight is 4 x 72 = 288kg

Fred knowing his own weight adds it on to this to get a new total weight. He adds 288 + 92 = 380kg and divided by 5 gives the new average of 76 kg.

We just multiply the new average 76 by 5 to get total weight of 380kg and subtract 288 kg which gives us Fred’s weight, 92kg

Dick Ahlstrom

Dick Ahlstrom

Dick Ahlstrom, a contributor to The Irish Times, is the newspaper's former Science Editor.