A new mathematical proof from high school seniors at a Black Catholic school in New Orleans has gained widespread praise in recent weeks, while also drawing ire from those who say it is getting undeserved attention.
A social media post from St. Mary’s Academy in New Orleans, founded by Venerable Henriette DeLille's Sisters of the Holy Family, spoke of “unprecedented research” conducted by the two teens.
“Calcea Johnson and Ne’Kiya Jackson, students of St Mary’s Academy, say they have proven Pythagoras’s theorem by using trigonometry,” said the American Mathematical Society (AMS), at whose semi-annual meeting the two presented their findings on March 18 in Atlanta.
They worked on the 4,000-year-old geometric equation as part of a contest at the school.
“The purposes of the contest were to further interest students in mathematics and provide opportunities to enhance their mathematical skill set,” the school said in a statement.
Their work has since gained international attention from journalists, mathematicians, and advocates for Black involvement in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). The coverage included an interview with ABC News on March 28.
According to The Guardian, Johnson and Jackson were encouraged by AMS executive director Catherine Roberts to submit their proof to a peer-reviewed journal to be confirmed by other experts. However, many have already begun to circulate their opinions based on reconstructions of the proof created by online sleuths.
“It’s great these high school students did this, but at many institutions it would not amount to an undergraduate senior thesis result,” wrote Dr. Sarah Rasmussen, a mathemetician at the University of Cambridge.
“We can celebrate and encourage high school mathematical exploration and achievement without intentionally creating confusion about how a result fits into the broader context of mathematical research done at the undergraduate, graduate, academic, and professional level.”
Dr. Álvaro Lozano-Robledo, a professor at the University of Connecticut, retorted that the new proof is quite remarkable, even if some media reports misstated its nature.
Lozano-Robledo himself had earlier garnered more than 222,000 views with a TikTok describing Johnson and Jackson’s work, calling it “very exciting.” (He later noted that some of the responses to the video were racist and “suspiciously critical.”)
“Mathematicians are usually skeptical of this kind of news because sometimes the news grabs onto a story that is not really that much of a big deal mathematically,” he said therein.
“But this proof does seem to be a big deal because it uses trigonometry without being circular.”
He later noted that Jason Zimba, a scholar who helped develop the Common Core math standards used in most U.S. states, also formulated a non-circular trigonometric proof for the Pythagorean theorem in 2009 using similar methods as those of Johnson and Jackson.
“They do not imply in their abstract that theirs is the first proof to accomplish this. They just claim to have found a new proof that does this!” Lozano-Robledo wrote.
“And what an awesome proof it is.”
For their part, the two 17-year-olds behind the new proof give credit to their instructors for challenging them to “do the impossible,” according to New Orleans outlet WWLTV.
"Our slogan is 'No Excellence Without Hard Labor.' So, they definitely push us," Johnson told the station.
“It's really an unparalleled feeling, honestly, because there's just nothing like being able to do something that people don't think young people can do.”
Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger and a seminarian with the Josephites.