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VIDEO: Mathematics and drag are all about creativity and shattering stereotypes

Shortly after “Math in Drag” hit the shelves in book stores across North America, author Kyne Santos found herself in a New York City elevator with renowned astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson.

“I was just, like, fangirling so hard,” she said in a recent video interview about last week’s chance meeting, Rubik’s cube earrings dangling from her lobes. “And you know what’s crazy? He knew who I was.”

Of course he did. She’s Kyne.

Santos was a contestant on the first season of the television show Canada’s Drag Race, but she’s perhaps more widely known on TikTok, where she guides 1.5 million followers into a glittering world of mathematics. In her videos, and now with her book, she reveals the wonders of infinities and imaginary numbers, showing that math is a mind-bending universe that pushes the limits of our imagination — just like drag.

“Math is really about creativity,” she said from her home in Kitchener, Ont. “Sometimes in math, we question our assumptions, we rewrite our definitions, we rethink our frameworks. And really, it is a lot like drag because they’re both creative, we do them both for fun, and they both operate in metaphors and abstraction, and tearing down stereotypes and frameworks and rebuilding them from the ground up.”

Santos has always been good at math, but she fell in love with it participating in high school math competitions, she said, where the questions were less about computing an answer than about taking apart ideas and figuring out why something is true. She said competitions showed her that math went beyond memorizing formulas.

“The way that we’re teaching math to kids is … a lot like teaching art to kids by having them paint a fence,” she said. “They’re not going to walk away from that thinking, ‘I love art.’”

During high school was also when she fell in love with drag. She experimented with makeup and launched a YouTube channel giving beauty tutorials, and eventually evolved into Kyne, the drag queen.

“I saw RuPaul’s Drag Race for the first time and I saw that these queens were just creative, sensitive souls like I was who played with makeup, and extended it into hair pieces and costumes and wigs and song and dance, just everything that I love,” she said.

She was at the University of Waterloo doing an undergraduate math degree when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and she used her time in lockdown to make her first TikTok video about math, in full drag. Recording a video as Kyne, she said, was a way to invite her audience into a creative, more open state of mind — the same state she hopes they’ll use with mathematics.

It seems to have worked: the videos took off.

Released March 5, “Math in Drag” blends Kyne’s personal history with accessible explorations of higher-level mathematical concepts. In one chapter, she writes about her father’s death, and uses a story about his fastidiousness with money to explain exponential growth. In another, she writes about the homophobia drag queens face for pushing gender boundaries, linking it to mathematical concepts that break the rules, like a graph that seems to allow dividing by zero, which, according to the average calculator, is strictly forbidden.

The history of mathematics has a lot to teach people who support anti-LGTBQ hate and protest drag shows, she said.

For example, the concept of zero was wildly controversial before it assumed its rightful spot on the number line. The idea forced mathematicians, scientists, philosophers — even the Catholic Church — to re-examine their idea of what a number is and could be.

“Why can’t we do that with drag? Why can’t we do that with everything?” she said. “When we encounter new things in the wild, instead of saying, ‘That doesn’t fit the definition,’ we should just change the definitions, and we should rewrite the frameworks to include other types of people.”

Santos was selected to be part of the first season of Canada’s Drag Race — a reality competition for drag queens, based on the American version of Rupaul’s Drag Race — which aired in 2020. She was sent home after the second episode, but she said the experience taught her to trust herself and lean into her strengths, like teaching about math.

She admires the British mathematician Eugenia Cheng, whose book “How to Bake Pi” uses dessert recipes to explain an abstract branch of math called category theory. She also admires RuPaul, who is credited with helping to bring drag mainstream.

“I think that what RuPaul has done has opened up the doors for queens like me to do different things in drag, like put out a book and be on television,” Santos said. “I really respect her hustle.”

She’s set to begin a cross-Canada tour for “Math in Drag” next month. She also wants to keep teaching, perhaps beyond TikTok, and maybe go to graduate school.

And after that elevator ride last week, she may even be a guest on deGrasse Tyson’s podcast.

“I love doing what I do. I love educating people. I love doing the TikTok videos,” she said. “If I could just do this forever, I’d be so happy with that.”

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