Louisiana Teens Solve Trigonometry Puzzle Thought to Be Impossible for 2,000 Years

Steve Prezant/Getty Images

Two Catholic high school students in New Orleans, Louisiana, used trigonometry to prove a mathematical puzzle that was thought to be unsolvable for 2,000 years.

St. Mary’s Academy — an all-girls school that a nun founded to help other young black women after the Civil War — is where Calcea Johnson and Ne’Kiya Jackson were challenged to participate in a math contest for a $500 prize. 

The two seniors completed a quiz and began the tough bonus test: to create a new proof of the Pythagorean Theorem.

The theorem is best known for being a fundamental principle of geometry, demonstrating how one can figure out the length of a side of a right triangle if one knows the lengths of the other two.

Both girls had studied geometry and some trigonometry, and both told CBS News that they did not find it easy. 

The outlet reported:

What no one told them was there had been more than 300 documented proofs of the Pythagorean Theorem using algebra and geometry, but, for 2,000 years, a proof using trigonometry was thought to be impossible … and that was the bonus question facing them.

When CBS interviewer Bill Whitaker asked the two students if they were thinking about how difficult the problem was, Ne’Kiya said, “Yeah.” But did that stop them? No. 

“I started something. I need to finish it,” Calcea said. “‘Cause I was like ‘$500 is a lot of money. So I — I would like to at least try.”

The bonus question was given in December 2022, and the girls spent almost all of their free time over the next two months working on it.

Calcea’s parents, Cal and CeCe Johnson, recalled how hard their daughter worked on the frustrating puzzle.

“She was like, ‘Mom, this is a little bit too much,'” CeCe told the outlet. “So then I started looking at what she really was doing, and it was pages and pages and pages of, like, over 20 or 30 pages for this one problem.”

“Yeah, the garbage can was full of papers, which she would, you know, work out the problems, and if that didn’t work, she would ball it up, throw it in the trash,” Cal added.

When Whitaker asked Ne’Kiya’s mom if she looked at the problem herself, she laughed.

“Personally, I did not,” Neliska Jackson said. “‘Cause, most of the time, I don’t understand what she’s doing.”

Michelle Blouin Williams is the math teacher who assigned the challenge in the first place.

“Did you think anyone would solve it?” asked Whitaker.

“Well, I wasn’t necessarily looking for a solve. So, no, I didn’t,” she replied.

When asked what exactly she was looking for, Williams said, “Some ingenuity.”

Well, Calcea and Ne’Kiya certainly delivered on that. Both girls independently came up with a proof that only used trigonometry. 

The only other documented proof of the theorem using that method was by mathematician Dr. Jason Zimba in 2009 — just one in 2,000 years. 

“So, are you math geniuses?” asked Whitaker.

“I think that’s a stretch,” Calcea said.

“If not genius, you’re really smart at math,” the interview replied.

“Not at all,” Ne’Kiya said with a chuckle.

The girls’ teachers submitted their proofs to an American Mathematical Society conference in Atlanta, Georgia, in March 2023.

“Well, our teacher approached us and was like, ‘Hey, you might be able to actually present this.’ I was like, ‘Are you joking?’ But she wasn’t,” Ne’Kiya recalled. “So, we went. I got up there. We presented, and it went well, and it blew up.”

Calcea described the massive response to their achievements as “insane, unexpected,” and “crazy.”

They were celebrated not only by their families, teachers, and peers but by very notable figures.

Former First Lady Michelle Obama gave the students a shout-out after their presentation, saying, “I’m rooting for you and can’t wait to see what you all do next.”

I just love this story about two high school students, Calcea Johnson and Ne'Kiya Jackson, who are on the cusp of an…

Posted by Michelle Obama on Friday, March 31, 2023

They also received a commendation from Louisiana’s then-Gov. John Bel Edwards, as well as symbolic keys to the city of New Orleans.

“Why do you think so many people found what you did to be so impressive?” Whitaker asked.

According to Ne’Kiya, a lot of the attention came because of their race, gender, and age, but she said she would like recognition “for what it is.”

“I’d like to actually be celebrated for what it is, like, it’s a great mathematical achievement,” she told the interviewer.

While Calcea and Ne’Kiya are smart and hardworking, they are typical St. Mary’s students, according to their math teacher.

“They’re not unicorns,” Whitaker posed.

“Oh, no, no. If they are unicorns, then every single lady that has matriculated through this school is a beautiful black unicorn,” Williams said.

For the last 17 years, the school has had a 100 percent graduation rate and a 100 percent college acceptance rate, according to principal Pamela Rogers.

In a school of about 600 students, this is achieved by having strict rules and high expectations. 

“At St. Mary’s, half the students get scholarships subsidized by fundraising to defray the $8,000 a year tuition,” CBS reported. “Here, there’s no test to get in, but expectations are high, and rules are strict: no cellphones, modest skirts, hair must be its natural color.”

As for what Ne’Kiya and Calcea have done following their graduation in 2023, they have both continued to be high-achieving. 

Ne’Kiya got a full ride to Xavier University’s pharmacy school in New Orleans, while class valedictorian Calcea went on to study environmental engineering at Louisiana State University.

“So, wait a minute. Neither one of you is going to pursue a career in math?” Whitaker asked.

The young women both said “no” and laughed.

“I may take up a minor in math, but I don’t want that to be my job job,” said Calcea.

“Yeah, people might expect too much out of me if I become a mathematician,” Ne’Kiya added.

However, they are not completely done with math. After finding their first proof, they have accomplished more. 

“We found five, and then we found a general format that could potentially produce at least five additional proofs,” Calcea stated.

“And you’re not math geniuses?” Whitaker asked again. 

Both maintained that they are not — just hardworking. 


Please let us know if you're having issues with commenting.