The (Drag) Queen Of Mathematics : Short Wave Kyne is the stage name of Kyne Santos, a drag queen math communicator. The former Canada's Drag Race contestant posted her first video explaining a math riddle in full drag on TikTok during the pandemic.

Since then Kyne's math videos, under the username @onlinekyne, have have attracted 1.2 million followers and generated 33.2 million likes. Kyne talks to host Emily Kwong on how to present math to the masses – and about bringing STEM to the drag scene.

Check out Kyne's TikTok videos: tiktok.com/@onlinekyne

Email the show at shortwave@npr.org.

The (Drag) Queen Of Mathematics

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EMILY KWONG, HOST:

You're listening to SHORT WAVE...

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KWONG: ...From NPR.

"RuPaul's Drag Race" is back. Season 14 just premiered on VH1. And the thing I always think about when watching this show is just how talented you have to be as a drag queen. You have to do it all - sewing, makeup, wig application, dancing, acting, lip-synching. And when producer Eva Tesfaye discovered the drag queen Kyne, we were super excited to have her on our show. Kyne competed on the first season of "Canada's Drag Race."

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KYNE: Attention fives. A 10 has just arrived.

My name's Kyne. I'm 21 years old from Kitchener, Ontario. When you come to a Kyne show, you are going to get goddess. I've taught 100,000 people how to do drag in my videos, and I'm here to teach 11 more.

KWONG: Kyne, by the way, uses she/her pronouns when in drag. The first moment we see her, Episode 1, she sashays through a glittering red door shaped like a maple leaf, 'cause Canada, wearing a zebra-striped catsuit a la Bob Mackie that she sewed herself. And after this moment aired, Kyne uploaded a video of how to sew this exact suit on her YouTube channel. She shares the knowledge.

You're so beautiful in drag.

KYNE: Thank you.

KWONG: Like, stunning. And I know you're like, let me teach you all how to do drag. But you've actually been teaching people for what sounds like a really long time. You started making videos in high school?

KYNE: Yeah, that would've been, like, 2013 that I started my YouTube channel. But that's always been, like, my thing, you know? Before I taught math, I was teaching people how to make outfits, how to style wigs.

KWONG: See, Kyne was a fourth-year math student at the University of Waterloo when Canada's first "Drag Race" came to town. But since the show aired, Kyne has discovered a way to combine her two talents, math and drag, into one moment.

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KYNE: I know what you're thinking. Kyne, nothing could compare to your beauty. And while that's true, math just has a beauty that's incomparable.

KWONG: Though Kyne didn't have a long run on the show, sashaying away in Episode 2, she's found her foothold on TikTok. She started using her account, @onlinekyne, to present math concepts and math riddles in drag.

KYNE: I didn't used to talk about how I studied math in drag. I didn't really think that anybody was interested.

KWONG: Actually, millions of people are interested. Kyne's videos have generated 33.2 million likes, and her account has 1.2 million followers. And she's just added a few more from Team SHORT WAVE. We love them.

KYNE: Thank you.

KWONG: I mean, we're science communicators. You're among nerds here - like, geek nerds.

So today on the show, a drag queen math communicator schools us on how to present math to the masses and how to do the work of representing STEM in the drag scene. You're listening to SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.

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KWONG: Tell me how you started doing these TikToks. How'd you even get the idea?

KYNE: It started after the pandemic and after we had all this, like, you know, free time on our hands to, like, be online. But I felt so burnt out from making my YouTube videos, my tutorials. I wanted to try something different. And some follower had suggested that I should post one of my tutorials on TikTok. And I was like, TikTok - isn't that the app where people just, like, dance? But I went on, and I was like, OK, no. Like, these people are actually so creative, and they're so funny, and I want to do something different, too. I want to do something funny.

So I had the idea to start telling math riddles in drag because I was like, wouldn't it be funny if I were, like, telling these riddles, like, dressed up as a crazy drag queen? And then maybe it was, like, my third, fourth or fifth video that just, like, instantly went viral.

KWONG: Yes, the one about exponential growth...

KYNE: Yeah, that was it.

KWONG: ...Which shows that you can theoretically fold a piece of paper enough times to get to the moon. Let's give it a watch.

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KYNE: So you've probably heard before that it's impossible to fold a sheet of paper in half more than, like, seven or eight times. So here's one fold, fold No. 2, three, four...

KWONG: You're folding the paper.

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KYNE: ...Five and six. And I can't do any more than this. Now, let's say I was physically capable of folding this 42 times. How thick would this get? Would you believe me if I told you that the thickness would actually go from the Earth to the moon?

KWONG: Let it be known, too, this video has 2 million likes.

KYNE: I know. It was crazy. And let me tell you right now, Emily, I've been, like, making YouTube videos for years before that, and I've never had any video be as viral as this one.

KWONG: Why? Was it the fact that you can get to the moon this way? What was the thing?

KYNE: It was also that people could not believe it. People were like, oh, 42 folds - like, something must be wrong with the math. It was that and also, what is this creature? Teach me about math (laughter).

KWONG: Yeah, you're wearing this, like, beautiful kind of yellow-gold wig. You have these, like, statement green earrings on. And is that, like, a leather bra?

KYNE: Yeah, it's vinyl.

KWONG: It's so pretty. Is it comfortable?

KYNE: It's pretty comfortable. I'll let you in on a little secret.

KWONG: Yeah.

KYNE: Drag in the pandemic on TikTok, where it's only waist up, is much more comfortable than drag before.

KWONG: Yeah (laughter). I imagine. You clearly are bringing so much of your creativity to your drag. And I'm wondering, is math creative for you in the same way?

KYNE: Oh, 100%. Math may not be, you know, as artistic and as entertaining to the general public as much as drag is. But I think it definitely takes creativity. So many of the theorems and the discoveries in math that we take for granted, they had to have been discovered by someone, who had to be really creative because they weren't working off of the same textbooks that we had. Think of people like Archimedes, who was only working with a compass and a straight edge. I think that creativity is just ingenious.

KWONG: Yeah. Do you have any math heroes?

KYNE: Ooh. Euclid, maybe.

KWONG: Why?

KYNE: Lots of people hail Euclid really as the father of geometry. I think he was more the father of mathematical rigor. You know, Euclid from Alexandria, he wrote a textbook called "Elements" - it was the most famous geometry textbook of all time and the very first one - that really approached math from a place of rigorous logic. And he was the first really to set the standard for what it would take to prove something in math.

Other cultures, like ancient Egypt, for instance, they used math to, you know, of course, create pyramids and build a great civilization. But they were more concerned about what math could do and using math as a tool, whereas the Greeks were much more philosophical about it. They were concerned with what math could prove and all about the logic and what is true and what can be proven with math. And I really think that Euclid started all of that.

KWONG: And these proofs, are these the same proofs that you learn in geometry class - those, like, written statements that prove a mathematical concept is true?

KYNE: Yes, exactly. And, you know, people always talk about, you know, what is the point of learning the geometry proof or the Pythagorean theorem? But really, what I say to those people is, it's not about, you know, being able to quote the Pythagorean theorem off the top of your head. It's about stretching your brain and trying to see what you can do with logic. And I think mathematics at its core is about logic. And it's - if you're somebody who likes brainteasers and puzzles, that's really what it's all about. And I think I've always liked solving puzzles, and I think maybe that's what drew me to math.

KWONG: Can you describe what it's like in your brain when you're sitting down to solve a math problem?

KYNE: I see it like chess. I see it like I know what the solution needs to be. How am I going to get there? You know, with chess, you sort of think about where you want the pieces to be, and you have to sort of think a few steps ahead and work backwards a little bit. It's a little bit like that for me. I like solving puzzles.

KWONG: Yeah.

KYNE: I like things that take you on a little bit of a journey, I guess.

KWONG: Yeah. Your dad is, like, someone you really look up to. And I was wondering if you could talk about him and if he had any relationship with math growing up.

KYNE: He did.

KWONG: Tell me, yeah.

KYNE: Yeah. Well, he was an engineer.

KWONG: OK.

KYNE: He worked for Toyota. And he was - you know, he was the one who started getting me into math when I was young. And so I think he just sort of instilled curiosity in me. And the other thing that he really drilled into me was being very frugal, saving money, keeping your finances in order. That's another big branch of math that I think plays a huge role in people's lives.

You know, when I was young, of course I didn't know what I wanted to do. So he was sort of my example of, you know, maybe you could be an engineer and do that.

KWONG: Yeah.

KYNE: He also likes basketball a lot. That did not rub off on me.

(LAUGHTER)

KYNE: I was not into sports, honey.

KWONG: And you make not only explanatory videos. You also make a lot of myth-busting videos.

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KYNE: Here's an example of a misleading graph out of the state of Georgia. So these are the top five counties in Georgia with confirmed cases of COVID-19, and it appears like the numbers are falling. But the dates on the X axis aren't even in order. It jumps from April 28 to 27 to the 29, then to May, then back to April. The Office of the Governor had to apologize for this.

I loved my eye makeup there. I need to do those colors again.

KWONG: It's kind of like an aurora fade. You've got, like, the gold and the green and the blue and the purple.

KYNE: Yeah.

KWONG: But, like, what made you want to do that video?

KYNE: I think I've just always found statistics to be really interesting. I think it's the most public-facing branch of math, and I think it's often the most misunderstood as well. So it's a huge misconception that, you know, if you - you can say anything in the world that you like, and if you back it up with a number, it automatically becomes more legitimate. And the whole point of this whole series of statistics on YouTube is that numbers can lie and numbers can be totally misleading, and they don't necessarily mean what you think they mean. So just because somebody says something and they back it up with a percentage or statistic doesn't mean it's true. You know, if you crunch the numbers hard enough, the numbers will say anything.

KWONG: What do you feel like is your role in the world when it comes to that message?

KYNE: I really feel my whole goal is really just to make people's opinions change about math. My whole goal is try to open people's minds because people find it too hard, too challenging, too confusing. And my whole message is just that math can be really interesting. Math can be beautiful. Math can be fun. And math can be extremely relevant to our world.

KWONG: Yeah. We just want to ask you about comments you've received from queer people feeling represented by your videos because you're representing queer people in STEM.

KYNE: Oh, my gosh. Well, I - just the other day, I think, I got a message from someone saying that they were a gay mathematician and that they loved my videos. And it's comments like that that, you know, I just love because when I started making these videos, I thought that the niche, little overlap of people that liked drag and that liked math was going to be so small 'cause people had always told me from the beginning, you know, Kyne, people don't really like math, much less want to see math from a drag queen. As I started going viral on TikTok, I learned that there were so many people that shared these interests. So it's been amazing to be able to find a community of gay people who don't just want to joke about how bad they are at math 'cause it's such a stereotype, isn't it?

KWONG: Yeah, yeah. And you're kind of fighting that stereotype.

KYNE: Yeah.

KWONG: OK. What is next for your drag career?

KYNE: Oh, my gosh. Well, I really love what I'm doing. I love making TikToks. I love being able to be my own boss and decide what videos I'm doing. And my dream is, like, to be like the Bill Nye of math and drag.

KWONG: Yes.

KYNE: I would love that.

KWONG: 'Cause there isn't even any precedent for that.

KYNE: No. Why can't the next Bill Nye be a drag queen?

KWONG: Absolutely. I mean, Kyne, thank you so much for representing STEM in all the ways you are. We have had so much fun talking to you and learning about your career, and we wish you so much luck with it.

KYNE: Oh, thanks, Emily.

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KWONG: This episode was produced and pitched by Eva Tesfaye. The editor was Stephanie O'Neill, and the fact-checker was Katherine Sypher. The audio engineer for this episode was Neil Tevault. I'm Emily Kwong, and you are listening to SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.

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