Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

The Problem With Pythagoras

I came up with the Pythagoras argument during one of those tiresome “How can you separate the art from the artist” conversations, and successfully demonstrated how easy it was for us to separate the Math from the mathematician. That prompt, “Would you ask that question about Pythagoras?” turned into this story. In that sense it is definitely the most unrealistic piece I have ever written, but relates to the smothering frustration of Twitter and cancel culture.

While Mrs. Duran drew uneven triangles on the white board, Waverly’s best friend Skye was attempting to break a KitKat without making any noise, her hands suspiciously submerged under her desk. Resident teacher’s pet Emmet was asking Mrs. Duran some complicated question as part of his competitive antics, which aimed to throw off anyone within a classroom’s ratio. Waverly waited until his needless show-off of a question had been answered and raised her hand herself.

“Mrs. Duran, I’m having some qualms with these problems.”

“Well, you would be, wouldn’t you?”

Dispirited sitcom laughs emanated from the class.

“Did you know that Pythagoras was an actual murderer?”

The class demonstrated some interest; the more mediocre students used it as an excuse to lift their heads from their books.

“Like, I read in this book that he basically founded a cult around Math and made people worship numbers.”

“You mean modern society?” said Kim, the class’ resident point-outer – every group of people needing at least one person to make the obvious observation.

“Yeah, I know right?” Waverly fake-laughed. “But this is some next level, like nxivm level stuff. Like he literally created a religion based on the premise that you could explain anything with numbers.”

“Okay, Thomas, that’s literally just Math,” said Emmet.

“Could you please let me finish, sir? Thank you. Anyway, apparently the Pythagoreans hadn’t figured out that there was no rational square root of two, so when one of his students pointed out that there wasn’t an answer within the natural numbers, Pythagoras, like, drowned him.”

“If only any of you felt that strongly about Math,” said Mrs. Duran.

“Oh shit, it’s true!” announced Kim, having googled it promptly. “Greek Mathematician Hippasus of Metapontum was a student of Pythagoras’ whose deadly drowning is believed to have been caused by the Theorem’s father. While there is some disagreement on whether the dispute between the learned men was about the golden ratio, the square root of two – like Waverly said – or Hippasus’ alleged mouthing off of mathematic secrets to the school’s rivals, the case remains one of the shadiest things about the Pythagorean Cult.”

“How interesting! Are you guys done gossiping?” asked Mrs. Duran, unmoved.

“Gossip? It’s called History, Mrs. Duran…” said Chardake, who had a keen ear for possible drama. Waverly, meanwhile, was dead-set on creating it.

“Look, all I’m saying is that I don’t know how I feel applying the theorems of a murderer…”

“Alleged,” completed Mrs. Duran, now visibly annoyed.

“Ma’am, did you know about this, then?” Kim once again asking the hard-hitting questions. Mrs. Duran threw her hands up in the air.

“It’s a myth,” she said. “And even if it ever did happen, it was a long time ago, so who cares? Can we get back to triangles, please?”

“It says here that Pythagoras did it in front of his followers when Hippasus confronted them about the square root of two…on a boat…okay, not the best place to confront somebody….And he then had his cult sworn to secrecy about the events of that afternoon.”

“That is so sus,” Chardake opined. “So sus,” his best friend Stramboli, known mostly for echoing Chardake’s opinions, echoed. Stramboli’s nickname, unbeknownst to him, was Backing Vocal.

Backing Vocal’s echo, however, was one of many streams of dialogue which now erupted around the classroom. The sheer scandal of the Father of Mathematics being a killer put Mathematics itself in check.

“There is no accountability in Math,” declared Waverly’s best friend Skye, who had peacefully and noisily devoured her KitKat through the chaos. “We’ve been using his theorem all this time, not knowing that he was a literal murderer. What is up with that?”

Skye and Waverly exchanged calculating looks. Still inserting a provocative statement here and there, they withdrew into their desks and watched their performative drama be matched and surpassed by the outrage of their classmates.

“How can we ever look at triangles in the same way, ever again? Knowing that they represent a psychopath’s legacy?”

“Not only do they represent it; they validate everything he did in order to protect it.”

“This theorem is forever tainted to me.”

“Come to think of it, triangles are inherently undemocratic. So are odd numbers.”

“How have they kept this hidden from us for so long?”

“We shouldn’t have to put up with this.”

“Now I’m so mad that everybody knows Pythagoras’ name but not his victim’s, who was probably smarter than him, since he figured out irrational numbers….”

“Look at all these murals dedicated to him! All around Math classrooms!”

“My stepmother’s second cousin died by drowning; this is not okay….”

“Pythagoras is so problematic, my god….”

“He drowns his students, then he drowns us in homework….”

“That’s not funny. You shouldn’t joke about that. That’s a person’s life you’re talking about.”

Mrs. Duran, whose somewhat controlled demeanour presently hung on a tread of fantasising about drowning every student in that room, banged on the whiteboard with a ruler until the scandal subsided. As soon as she opened her mouth to talk, the bell rang and, like a lifeboat, prevented the students from hearing it.

“Homework is pages thirty to thirty-three! Don’t forget!” she helplessly shouted to the outraged congregation, and Emmet was the only one to nod in sympathy. Their next stop? The principal’s office.

*

COLLABORATIVE PROBLEM

(1,5 points for Math section of the test)

(1,0 point for English section of the test)

(0,5 point for Biology section of the test)

Pythagoras is accompanied by Hippasus and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and their positions are such that the distance between each forms a right triangle. If the distance from Pythagoras to one of them is 10 ft, whose distance to the other corresponds to the medium horizontal speed of the albatross divided by the quadruple of the first unit of distance, please answer:

1. What is the distance that the albatross would have to cover flying from Pythagoras to the second buddy?

2. If all of them start running (or flying) the distance of their respective side back and forth (clockwise first), at which length will one cross the albatross? Meaning who will cross ways with him first and at which lap?

*

When Waverly’s older sister Gwen had come back home for Christmas, she had been flabbergasted to hear about the book banishments at Waverly’s high school, from which Gwen had graduated four years earlier, with honours, her Yearbook quote having been, “See yah, suckers.” (She had, indeed, seen some of them over the years, though she had mostly replaced her teenage companions with college friends.) Gwen had just majored in English, which was not useless.

“According to who?” asked her father, leaving the room before she could answer.

“Whom. According to whom.”

“Ah, I see. Money well-spent, then,” he yelled from the stairs.

“Anyway, Waverly, you were talking about The Bell Jar,” she ordered her little sister to proceed.

“Yeah, it was on the syllabus, but they took it out because someone said it romanticised mental illness.”

“I feel like people don’t really understand what romanticisation means, but sure. Let’s just not talk about mental health at all, then,” Gwen was biting into a pickle with her back teeth.

“Also, apparently there was some racist stuff in it.”

“There’s racist stuff in The Bell Jar? I don’t even remember there being black people in it.”

“Maybe that’s what’s racist about it? I don’t know – again, I didn’t read it…. Well, they replaced it with Maya Angelou, which was much shorter, so I was okay with it.”

“Ah yes, Maya Angelou, the only black author schools have ever heard of.”

“Sylvia Plath was anti-Semitic, too,” added Waverly, completing her list of forgotten reasons why The Bell Jar had been set aside.

“She was obviously not a well person,” meditated Gwen. “But, you know, ‘Death of the Author.’”

“Isn’t ‘Death of the Author’ kind of a white man take?” asked Waverly, unmoved, going through the motions of an argument she had heard at class and taking the side that was unrepresented in the conversation. There was an evident shift in Gwen’s expression. She now held the pickle vertically and straightened her back.

“Not really. It’s just about not throwing the baby out with the bathwater, you know? Like if Sylvia Plath was a nasty person, then fuck her. That doesn’t mean her work isn’t important. Also, it’s just so clear how much people disparage the Humanities? They’ll say, like, I’m not looking at this Caravaggio because he murdered people, but use Pythagoras on a daily basis. Like, no one’s gonna stop teaching the Pythagorean Theorem just because Pythagoras killed that one dude who contested him. No one’s gonna be like, ‘Triangles are Problematic, actually.’”

“Pythagoras murdered someone?”

“That’s not the point, is what I’m saying. The first palaeontologist ever literally ate puppies – are you gonna say Palaeontology is over now? Pack your fossils and go, folks, we are erasing your founder from History. Linus Pauling was into Eugenics, and Schrödinger was pretty unambiguously into teenage girls. The point is, no one is ever going to say, ‘Let’s get rid of these men’s work’ just because they were shit people, the way they would if they were writers or painters or philosophers, because we live in a world where the Humanities constantly get the short end of the stick. The Bell Jar is, to a Lit Major, infinitely more important than Linus Pauling and just as influential, but unfortunately Literature is not seen as something as important as science.”

Waverly considered all of this during a long blink.

“I’m sorry, did you just say some guy ate puppies…?”

“Yeah, you should feel bad every time you look at a fossil in a museum. Cover your eyes, look away, look away!”

“And Pauling’s the one with the 1s2, 2s2, 2p6…?”

“Yes.”

“I hate that guy. To be fair, though, I hated him for designing the diagram. Now I can hate him for being a terrible human, too. Thanks.”

“You do get my point, though, right? People aren’t going to stop using that diagram because it’s too important, doesn’t matter if Pauling’s been Meetooed.”

“I guess.” said Waverly. She really wanted not to think about school right now. Then she failed a Math test, and thought that maybe there was a way out.

*

COLLABORATIVE PROBLEM

(0,5 for Math)

(0,5 for Geography)

(0,5 for English)

If Hippasus, passed out but not yet dead, paused betwixt the world destroyed and the world restored, his body temporarily kept by a wayward branch in the Mediterranean, whose current is at its maximum speed near the surface, and knowing that Hippasus weighed 78 kilograms before being pushed into the water fifteen minutes ago, how long will it be till the cylinder-shaped branch with an estimated diameter of square root 11 cm breaks from its irregularly shaped base, coming in at a square root 5 cm diameter at best?

*

Kim, having taken charge of the cause, carried herself portentously as soon as the whole group was allowed to see Principal Neweklowsky.

“We no longer feel comfortable with Pythagoras and his teachings at this school, now that it has come to our attention that he was a homicidal maniac,” she posed.

Principal Neweklowsky was at first simply confused.

“I’m confused,” he said.

“We’re asking you to ban Pythagoras and his theorems from the curriculum.”

Normally quite reasonable at student negotiations, Neweklowsky was at a loss on how to proceed. They had a great rapport on dealing with issues such as these: this school year alone, Kim Wilkins had come to him demanding he cut about five novels from the curriculum, which he did without much grief due to the outcry promoted by the student body. He had never liked Jane Eyre, Conrad, or Dickens. As for the others, he’d never bothered to read them. Sure, it had been difficult to see the looks on the young kids’ faces, tears streaming down when their Harry Potter books were snatched away from them, but he didn’t want any trouble with the high schoolers. You don’t want any trouble with the high schoolers, his predecessor had advised him. High schoolers could raise hell through that council of theirs.

Now, however, it looked as if that policy had incentivised them to lose their collective mind. Having come from a STEM background himself, Neweklowsky was positively puzzled by the thought process on his pupils.

“But…it’s Pythagoras,” was all he could muster.

“But he was a murderer.”

“Well, I’m sure the statute of limitations has expired on those charges,” with a chuckle. No one laughed.

“I’m sure you understand, you’d be normalising murder if you let this go on.”

“But no one knows he was a murderer….”

“And that’s part of the problem! Or are we suggesting we cover up crimes to make people more comfortable?”

“We really thought you were different, Mr. Neweklowsky. We thought you understood what it was all about.”

“I do, but I do! I just don’t think it’s possible to teach Math without teaching Pythagoras…. One thing is a single novel, but this is something that is still relevant….”

“So you only ban abusers whose work you personally consider unimportant.”

“I’m…I…I need some time to deliberate on this, okay? Don’t you guys have class? We’ll talk later,” the principal decided. His hands betrayed his sentiments as they signalled “off-you-go-now” in every possible way.

*

Apart from Emmet of course, no one had done their homework the next day: solidarity for the cause demanded direct action. That freed up some time on Waverly’s schedule so that she could create a website detailing all problematic deeds by the scientists and mathematicians behind her greatest academic challenges – bringing them all to light herself would be suspicious.

Most of the Greeks owned slaves, so that was easy. The more current the scientist, the harder it was to gather dirt on them, but Waverly patiently swept the scraps of possible dust specs in their reputation until they looked awful put together. Newton especially, what a nutter!

When she could not find anything particularly incriminating about someone, she simply made it up. One guy who found a “better” way to solve a type of equation, which Waverly simply couldn’t master, had to be turned into a cannibal. Many a prominent dendrochronologist had to be accused of excessive tree logging and destroying the environment. Some of them were given extra issues (anti-vax, might have experimented on humans, openly supported drilling on Facebook…) just to ensure that Waverly would never have to calculate a stupid tree’s age from the stupid ratio of its stupid rings.

Phase Two was ready to go.

“Hey, Kim, what if we like, looked up which scientist and mathematicians are problematic just so we already know?”

“That’s a great idea, actually.”

“Yeah, just search for problematic scientists and mathematicians, I guess.”

“Oh! There’s a website just for that. Problematicscientistsandmathematicians.tumblr.com.”

“Ha. That’s wild.”

“There are so many! What the hell?”

“What?”

“There’s a quiz. Can you guess which one of these STEM legends ate puppies?”

“Woah. I didn’t know Cruella Deville was a STEM legend.”

“It’s some guy I’ve never heard of. Oh. My. God. I’m never using Pauling again.”

Waverly hadn’t had to cram once that whole week on account of the protests. She was more rested than she had been since kindergarten nap time.

On the weekend, Kim broke into the school with a gang of socially-minded youths and trashed, defaced, and vandalised every shape reminiscent of a right triangle.

*

There would be no class that Monday: Neweklowsky called an urgent PTA meeting, a wild concept indeed given that PTA meetings were usually the first thing to be cancelled if there was ever a real emergency to be dealt with.

Students had demanded that their parents bring them along, circulating saying things such as Pythagoras 2 + Unaccountability2 = Protest2.

“What does that even mean?” whispered Waverly to Skye.

“I’m guessing it means Pythagoras times Pythagoras plus unaccountability times unaccountability equals protest times protest.”

“Wow, thanks for translating. But isn’t unaccountability a negative? You know my Math is dire, but I’m pretty sure unaccountability squared would have to mean accountability.”

“What if it was Unaccountability 2 ?”

“Wouldn’t that just be…ability?”

“Negative ability, because un- is a negative.”

“Is un- a negative though? Or is it just absence of accountability?”

“Like a zero? But then it would be zero anyway. Maybe it could be an X, that way you know you can’t count it.”

“Pythagoras did love to count things. I’m sure he would protest if they forbade it.”

They giggled like the schoolgirls they were. Neweklowsky begged for order in the town hall. He had purchased a gavel for the occasion.

“Haven’t you ever heard of innocent until proven guilty?”

Chaos ensued once more. Waverly theorised that the principal had only asked such a stupid question in order to bang his gavel once more.

“Listen, let’s be reasonable here. Maybe we could introduce a disclaimer at the top of Math tests….” he suggested.

“Those are just symbolic actions that change nothing. Geometry will still be gatekept by a murderer,” said Kim.

“Mr. Neweklowsky, what the hell is happening right now?” said an adult, hopefully one of the parents and not just a stranger who showed up to PTA meetings. “I had to get out of work for this nonsense,” he protested, his business suit seemingly vouching for him.

“What is happening, sir, is that triangles are inherently classist, even the equilateral ones,” someone else said, perhaps unironically. 

“This has gone too far,” decided Neweklowsky, needlessly banging the gavel. “Parents, I trust that you will oversee that your children turn in their assignments. Starting now, we’re instating a zero-tolerance homework strike policy! Perhaps you still know the meaning of zero even if Brahmagupta did not openly criticise the caste system! It means nothing, none, nada! Zero equals F!”

He banged his gavel one last time and it fell off its handle.

“I did not bang that hard, it’s just cheap,” Neweklowsky put his hands up. “Newtonian Physics, if anyone still cares,” he muttered under his breath.

“Who is Brahmagupta?” asked Skye.

“Discovered zero, did some trigonometry shit, did not openly criticise the caste system in medieval Rajasthan,” Waverly clarified.

*

In Memoriam

COLLABORATIVE QUESTION

(0,5 point for History)

(0,5 for Math)

Pythagoras and seven other mathematicians are sailing a ship capable of carrying the maximum weight 3000 kilos. Three of those men weigh the exact same, while one of them is 20 pounds heavier than that shared weight, and another is 35 lighter than the second lightest person on the boat. If Pythagoras himself weighs 90 kilos, and the ship becomes 5,48% faster even though the speed of 6 knots has not changed, how much does each member of the crew weigh at the time of this drowning?

*

No matter how much the students cared about the unjust murder of Whatshisface, they ultimately cared more about their grades. Triangles were soon repaired and reinstated, followed by cones and pyramids. There was an eventual love triangle between Skye, Chardake, and his backing vocal Stromboli, who was in love with him. Far from equilateral, this triangle ended with a rejected Skye, who soon got over it with the help of many a banned book featuring a tragic love story.

Emmet went on to become an engineer, never growing out of his proclivities for pomposity.

Kim resigned herself to polluting the school’s swimming pools with right triangle cardboard cutups, which caused the swim team to vandalise her locker with spray-painted triangles. Her frequent protests gave her plenty to write about in her application letters, which got her accepted into an Ivy League university. Though she dropped out after a semester, she has done well for herself as a promising tech start-up CEO.

Gwen went on to become an English teacher at the high school, where she prevented many a rebellion with the power of dialogue. Many others, she was not able to prevent – but as math wisely reminds us, you win some, you lose some. You incite others if you don’t think your humanities teacher salary is fair compared to your stem counterparts.

Mrs. Duran retired four years after that class graduated; her geometry unable to keep up with the times. It did not help that she used the art form of the Math problem as a way to taunt those more vigorous Hippasus defenders. Nevertheless, she always maintained that such provocations were her way of keeping the story alive.

Waverly, ever the cognitive miser, continued to struggle with Math and Physics, though she did manage to learn some of it before permanently deleting it from her brain given that calculators are a thing. If this ordeal had taught her anything, nonetheless, was how easy it is to derail a class by bringing up irrelevant personal details about the individual behind an intellectual contribution. That precious waste of time never failed to reduce her homework load. She went on to run a successful ad agency responsible for many well-known disinformation campaigns.

Though Principal Neweklowsky did not revel in his newfound unpopularity, he did find freedom above the yolk of high school discourse, which he outsourced to his PTA liaison. Upon retirement, Neweklowsky had a right-triangle-shaped pool built in his backyard, where, after failing to take the force of his head against the crooked hypothenuse into account, passed out and drowned like Hippasus before him.


Beatriz Seelaender was born in 1998 in São Paulo, Brazil. She’s had essays published by websites such as The Collapsar and The Manifest-Station, and her short stories can be found in Psychopomp Lit Mag, The Gateway Review and others. Her story “A Kidney Caught in Quicksand”, published by Grub Street in 2017, earned recognition from the Columbia Scholastic Press Association in the categories of experimental fiction and humour writing. In 2019, Seelaender won Hidden River Arts’ Sandy Run Novella Award. 

1 thought on “The Problem With Pythagoras

  1. I really like your insights. In an almost ironic way, the fact that they are letting us talk about our point of view on censorship like this is in itself showing that they don’t believe in that form of censoring themselves which I personally think is awesome ? ?.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: