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Black High School Seniors Solve 2,000-Year-Old Math Puzzle with Trigonometry (video)

Teen Math Whizzes Make Historic Breakthrough

In a world where the mere mention of math evokes groans from students, two high school seniors from New Orleans have achieved something extraordinary, rewriting a piece of mathematical history. Kelsey Johnson and Naya Jackson, students at St. Mary’s Academy, have provided a trigonometric proof of the Pythagorean Theorem, a feat thought impossible for over 2,000 years.

A School That Inspires Greatness

St. Mary’s Academy, an all-girls Catholic high school, encourages its students to believe in their limitless potential. The school, founded by an African-American nun just after the Civil War, continues to thrive with the support of the church and alumni. It was here that Johnson and Jackson found a nurturing environment that empowered them to take on the challenging proof.

The Challenge

In December 2022, Johnson and Jackson were participating in a schoolwide math contest that included a bonus question: create a new proof of the Pythagorean Theorem using trigonometry. The theorem, a fundamental principle of geometry, is typically expressed as 𝑎2+𝑏2=𝑐2a2+b2=c2. While there have been over 300 documented proofs using algebra and geometry, a trigonometric proof was believed to be impossible.

Despite their modest backgrounds in math, Johnson and Jackson dedicated nearly all their free time to solving the problem. Their determination paid off when they independently developed proofs that utilized trigonometry, a groundbreaking accomplishment.

Recognition and Impact

Their math teacher, Michelle Blen Williams, submitted their work to an American Mathematical Society conference in Atlanta, where it received widespread acclaim. The achievement brought them recognition from former First Lady Michelle Obama, the governor, and the city of New Orleans, among others.

The significance of their accomplishment extends beyond mathematics. As young African-American women, Johnson and Jackson have shattered stereotypes and opened doors for others who might not fit the traditional mold of a math genius.

A Bright Future

Both Johnson and Jackson have graduated from St. Mary’s Academy with full college scholarships. Johnson is studying environmental engineering at Louisiana State University, while Jackson is pursuing pharmacy at Xavier University. Although neither plans to make a career in math, their high school proofs are undergoing final peer review and publication, and they continue to explore further proofs of the Pythagorean Theorem.

Their story is a testament to the power of education, perseverance, and the breaking of barriers. St. Mary’s Academy, with its legacy of excellence and strong sense of sisterhood, has once again proven that its students can achieve anything they set their minds to.

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