Mathematics and our quest for beauty, truth, and human flourishing

Take a second and think about mathematics — what are the first words that come to mind? For many people, it’s probably “complicated”, “difficult”, or “boring”. But if you were to ask people like Francis Su, you’d probably hear replies that involve “beauty”, “truth”, and “creativity”.

Granted, Su is one of the better mathematicians out there, having served as President of the Mathematical Association of America for 2 years, until 2017. But you don’t need to be a leading mathematician to enjoy it.

In his book, Mathematics for Human Flourishing, Francis Su argues (and I’d dare say, proves) that anyone can enjoy mathematics. It’s not about solving equations or looking at triangles, it’s about becoming a better person — and doing it in a way that’s actually enjoyable.

Get it on Amazon.

The story of Christopher, Simone, and you

Mathematicians don’t often receive standing ovations. Yet that’s exactly what happened when Francis Su delivered his farewell address at the Joint Mathematics Meetings of the Mathematical Association of America.

As you may imagine, it wasn’t your average talk. It started with an emotional story of one Christopher Jackson. Here’s how Su described Christopher at the time:

“Christopher is an inmate in a high-security federal prison not far from Atlanta. He’s been in trouble with the law since he was 14. He didn’t finish high school, had an addiction to hard drugs, and at age 21, his involvement in a string of armed robberies landed him in prison with a 32-year sentence.”

This alone, Su argued, is enough for you to make a mental image of Christopher, and not a very flattering one. Yet, after 7 years in prison, Christopher reached out to Su with a touching letter that read:

“I’ve always had a proclivity for mathematics, but being in a very early stage of youth and also living in some adverse circumstances, I never came to understand the true meaning and benefit of pursuing an education… over the last 3 years I have purchased and studied a multitude of books to give me a profound and concrete understanding of Algebra I, Algebra II, College Algebra, Geometry, Trigonometry, Calculus I and Calculus II.” 

Doesn’t exactly fit your previous mental image, does it? Christopher and Su developed a long correspondence, with the former asking the latter for a direction for his mathematical passion. Christopher didn’t expect a reply to his initial letter. He had no connection to Su, no special way of delivering the letter, and he only reached out because he saw Su’s name in a book; and yet, Su replied.

Dilligently working by himself, Christopher slowly became a better mathematician, and through it, a better man.

What is it that drew Christopher to find serenity, progress, and meaning in mathematics? You could reasonably argue that Chris is in prison, his perspectives are limited, there isn’t that much he can focus his attention on.

Take then the case of Simone Weil — Simone Weil is a well-known French philosopher, also the sister of Andre Weil, a mathematician. Simone’s achievements were arguably just as, if not more impactful than those of her brother, and yet she constantly felt in his shadow, denied access into a club that she desperately wanted to get into. Describing her feelings on the matter, she wrote:

At fourteen I fell into one of those fits of bottomless despair that come with adolescence, and I seriously thought of dying because of the mediocrity of my natural faculties… the exceptional gifts of my brother, who had a childhood and youth comparable to those of Pascal, brought my own inferiority home to me. I did not mind having no visible successes, but what did grieve me was the idea of being excluded from that transcendent kingdom to which only the truly great have access and wherein truth abides. I preferred to die rather than live without that truth.”

Simone loved mathematics, we know this from some of her writings, and she was also brilliant. Granted, her brother was a mathematical genius, but is this is a reason for her not to enjoy mathematics?

I’d wager that most (if not all) people on Earth have, at some point, that mathematics is best left for someone smarter than them, why is this? Why is maths regarded as an exclusive club where only the chosen few are allowed to go in? Most people like to play football or basketball, even though they’re not Ronaldo or Lebron, folks try their hand at writing or painting, there’s no apparent reason why mathematics should be any different.

In fact, if you look at social media, you’ll find a million of those “how much is one shoe plus one hat” quizzes. Put them in an equation form, and everyone’s immediately turned off.

It’s not that people have an innate disdain for math, on the contrary — we’re a curious species, and mathematics is a very curious thing. Rather, the way we’re taught to think about mathematics, that’s what ends up pushing us away from it and makes us think like it’s just unapproachable.

You instinctively want to solve this, don’t you?

In Mathematics for Human Flourishing, Francis Su takes a different journey. Su doesn’t talk about mathematics in terms of numbers and charts, he talks about basic human desires, such as play, beauty, truth, justice, and love.

The book also touches on some very practical concerns, such as racial and cultural injustices. Su grew up in Texas, born to Chinese parents, in a predominantly White and Latino community. He had no Asian role models and tried to act white, despite not really fitting in — but he was also regarded as not Chinese enough by Asian communities. In his book, Su makes the pass from math to this kind of topic with remarkable ease. At times, it doesn’t even feel like reading, it almost feels like hearing someone recount stories and ask questions about the future. It’s insightful, challenging, and heartwarming.

At times, the stories are sprinkled with small puzzles that you can work on to hone your imagination and creativity, and they serve their purpose. Ultimately though, the book all about seeing mathematics for what it really is, or rather could be: not a weapon to torture students with, not a mere tool to help with other things, but a process for human flourishing. You don’t need to be good at math to read it. You can be extremely good at math and still take a lot from it. That’s the beauty of it.

After five years of correspondence, Fransic Su got the chance to meet Christopher. They took a photo in front of a mural painted on a prison wall, the only place where taking a photo was allowed. The earliest that Christopher could leave prison is in 2033. Sentences for offenses like the ones he was convicted were reduced, but not retroactively. If it had, Chris would be free now.

Yet he does not despair. He repents for his earlier mistakes and strives to make the best of his time, in large part through mathematics. A small intervention at the right could have put his whole life on a completely different course.

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