Algebra: From Broken Bones To Twitter Feuds

When a high school student asked a question about algebra on TikTok, she unknowingly awoke an age-old debate in mathematics history.

broken cartoon bone with dotted lines connecting them against a wine-colored, paper-textured background
Credit: Elah Feder

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When high schooler Gracie Cunningham posted a TikTok of herself asking where algebra came from, she probably didn’t expect to become a viral sensation. There were the usual Twitter trolls, but some unexpected voices also began piping up, causing a flurry in the math world.

Thank you to Chad, the listener who suggested that we do an episode on algebra. If you have a suggestion for a word or episode, leave us a voicemail. The number is 929-499-WORD, or 929-499-9673. Or, you can always send an email to


Steven Strogatz is a Professor of applied mathematics at Cornell, and Visiting Professor at National Museum of Mathematics.

Eugenia Cheng is a mathematician and Scientist in Residence at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and the author of x + y: A Mathematician’s Manifesto for Rethinking Gender.

Footnotes & Further Reading: 

Read Eugenia Cheng’s full response to Gracie. 

Take a peek at al-Khwarizmi’s The Compendious Book on Calculation by Completion and Balancing.


This episode was produced by Johanna Mayer and Lauren Young. Our Editor and Senior Producer is Elah Feder. Daniel Peterschmidt is our Composer. Danya AbdelHameid contributed fact checking. Our Chief Content Officier is Nadja Oertelt

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Meet the Writers

About Johanna Mayer

Johanna Mayer is a podcast producer and hosted Science Diction from Science Friday. When she’s not working, she’s probably baking a fruit pie. Cherry’s her specialty, but she whips up a mean rhubarb streusel as well.

About Lauren J. Young

Lauren J. Young was Science Friday’s digital producer. When she’s not shelving books as a library assistant, she’s adding to her impressive Pez dispenser collection.

About Elah Feder

Elah Feder is the former senior producer for podcasts at Science Friday. She produced the Science Diction podcast, and co-hosted and produced the Undiscovered podcast.

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