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Mathematics for Human Flourishing

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For mathematician Francis Su, a society without mathematical affection is like a city without concerts, parks, or museums. To miss out on mathematics is to live without experiencing some of humanity's most beautiful ideas.

In this profound book, written for a wide audience but especially for those disenchanted by their past experiences, and award-winning mathematician and educator weaves parables, puzzles, and personal reflections to show how mathematics meets basic human desires - such as for play, beauty, freedom, justice, and love - and cultivates virtues essential for human flourishing.

These desires and virtues, and the stories told here, reveal how mathematics is intimately tied to being human. Some lessons emerge from those who have struggled, including philosopher Simone Weil, whose own mathematical contributions were overshadowed by her brother's and Christopher Jackson, who discovered mathematics as an inmate in a federal prison.

Christopher's letters to the author appear throughout the book and show how this intellectual pursuit can - and must - be open to all.

If purchasing this title in the Audible version, the accompanying PDF will be available in your Audible Library along with the audio.

RUNNING TIME ⇒ 6hrs. and 52mins.

©2020 Francis Edward Su (P)2020 Tantor

274 pages, Hardcover

First published January 7, 2020

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About the author

Francis Su

3 books10 followers
Francis Su is the Benediktsson-Karwa Professor of Mathematics at Harvey Mudd College and the past president of the Mathematical Association of America. In 2013, he received the Haimo Award, a nationwide teaching prize for college math faculty, and in 2018 he won the Halmos-Ford writing award for the highly-acclaimed speech on which this book is based. His work has been featured in Quanta Magazine, Wired, and the New York Times.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 111 reviews
Profile Image for Jenna.
Author 9 books317 followers
January 16, 2020
A while back, my sister gifted me a calendar, each page of which features a different comic about anthropomorphic animals by the cartoonist Liz Climo. My favorite page is June 5, a two-panel comic: in the first panel, a pair of dolphins offer a wine-bottle cork to a narwhal, saying, "Larry, we got you a present." The narwhal, puzzled, asks, "A cork? What's that for?" In the second panel, which has no words in it, the narwhal is wearing the cork on the tip of his tusk-like tooth, thereby blunting its dangerous sharpness, and he is joyfully playing water polo with the two dolphins. Because of the cork, the narwhal is no longer hindered from joining in the game by his fear of puncturing the ball with his tooth. All three animals are smiling.

Mathematics for Human Flourishing, a book developed from Harvey Mudd professor Francis Su's phenomenally popular 2017 Mathematical Association of America speech, is kind of a pop-math-book analogue of this comic. Unlike other books that have attempted to answer the question "Why would anyone want to do math?" -- say, the G.H. Hardy classic A Mathematician's Apology -- Su's book takes a humanistic, social-justice-conscious approach to the question: de-emphasizing thorny concepts like talent, genius, and achievement, Su instead focuses on how the practice of math can help all people flourish as human beings regardless of their background or skillset, enabling them to access joys and develop virtues by whose aid they can experience human life more fully. As a corollary, Su argues that efforts must be made to make mathematical communities more welcoming to people from historically underrepresented demographics, such as women and people of color, and he gives concrete examples of ways that this can be done. I thought this was a good companion read to Catherine Chung's novel about a woman mathematician, The Tenth Muse , which moved me when I read it last month. Regardless of how much or how little mathematical background we have, all of us have the opportunity to embody one of the two dolphins in the comic and give the gift of a fuller life through mathematics to a narwhal we know.
13 reviews
January 22, 2020
To try to help my father understand why I decided to go to graduate school in mathematics, I gave him a copy of A Mathematician's Apology. It was not perfect for the task, and I have many issues with that book, but my father understood me and the idea of a pure symbolism that drew me to the subject as he explained it to his sister.

I think if I am ever in a similar circumstance of trying to explain my love of mathematics, I would give this book instead.

Professor Francis Su has a emphatic voice that combats the cold austere stereotype of mathematicians. The human element of mathematics is explained wonderfully in this book to the extent that I think this is an excellent book for both those who don't know much about mathematics and for any mathematician to remind them of their human soul. While the farewell address that this book is based, serves as a good summary of the ideas, I don't feel like this book is padded out to just fill out the book.
Profile Image for Inkslinger.
225 reviews39 followers
September 21, 2020
Mathematics for Human Flourishing by Francis Su with Reflections by Christopher Jackson

ARC provided by Yale University Press and Francis Su. All opinions are mine and freely given.

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09-21: I don't know what drew me to 'Mathematics for Human Flourishing' by Francis Su. If I'm being completely honest, I think I found the title intriguingly unusual. Without actually paying attention at the time to who the author might be, the cadence of the title had a very eastern feel to it.. and being of mixed Asian and Native Hawaiian descent.. sometimes my eye has a tendency toward those fluid sort of word dances.

Perhaps, not so ironically.. in hindsight, as a student I was incredibly bored by mathematics and science. Not initially of course, in grade school instructors often seem to have a different approach to learning than in later grades. Not simply because the age of the students is younger, but in my experience most of them seemed to be in it for the kids and often genuinely liked them. As an adult, I know several people who teach junior high or high schoolers and none of them like their students as a rule.

Likewise, I didn't much care for the instructors who wanted me to fit in a convenient box. And if I didn't like them, I didn't work well for them.. add to that.. the curriculum of math and science in traditional schools.. and I didn't even want to be there. Amusingly enough, I understood it fine. I could teach others, even those in college classes above me. Though I was a student who strongly disliked those classes, as an adult.. some of my favorite casual reads are books on quantum physics and quantum mechanics (science).. and what must you have for those? Mathematics. There's the irony for you.

It probably seems as if I'm off on a tangent here and not reviewing the book, but bear with me.. my apparent tangent relates. What I expected from the book was for it to be heavily focused on mathematical theory and possibly full of formulas and problem solving.. the latter of which I love.. with a few anecdotes which might be interesting.

Don't get me wrong. Sprinkled throughout the book there is some of that, but it's much more than it might seem.

Su actually spends much of his time discussing the ripple effects that mathematics and the attitudes we're unintentionally groomed to have towards them have on our lives. He talks about how differently we might take to the topic if the focus was on learning and exploring, rather than ultimately on the grade and the correct solutions. The experience of exploration in mathematics leading students to find it more fun.. more engaging.. rather than turning away from it because it's shoved at them with a set of hard rules and expectations for results.

There's some discussion on the fact mathematics are used more frequently in our every day lives than we understand. That there are algorithms choosing what we'll see, what opportunities we'll get, who or what we might make contact with and how a deeper understanding of all that might benefit us.

He talks a great deal about spotting patterns (which are my go-to in just about every setting), and how our unknown inherent biases affect our decision making. There was a story in fact.. about restaurants with different menus that was surprising to me at first.. but when I got to thinking about what lead them to this method.. I began to see how it might happen more regularly than people realized.

Certainly, there are assumptions made upon every interaction.. be it personal or professional. We judge, if not by race or common stereotype, at least by our own experiences. And that can lead us to approaching the same situation in an entirely different way, simply because we perceive a certain level of understanding within the other person. It's fascinating really.

In addition to the things I mentioned, I genuinely enjoyed his reflection on letters sent to him by Christopher Jackson.. a man who discovered mathematics as an inmate in a federal prison. Christopher shares some truly introspective self-assessment with the author during the exchanges and the two seem to have forged quite a friendship over the years.

The author touches on a lot of topics that are afflicting us currently and I highly suggest giving this book a try. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised by the content and his insight.

Profile Image for Bob.
1,782 reviews607 followers
February 7, 2020
Summary: An argument for the value of mathematics in all of our lives through meeting our deep desires and cultivating virtues helping us and others to flourish.

I have to admit approaching this book with both fascination, and a bit of trepidation. I was curious for how the author would demonstrate that math fosters human flourishing. And I was afraid that the book would reveal the deficit in my rusty math skills, that it would be a discussion of inside baseball, with me on the outside, as it were.

Francis Su sets us at ease from the earliest pages. He introduces us to a correspondent friend, Christopher Jackson and to Simone Weil. Jackson is in prison for armed robbery, connected with drug addiction, who won't be released until 2033 at the earliest. Simone Weil was the younger sister of famed number theorist, André Weil. Simone Weil once said "Every being cries out to be read differently." As it turns out, Jackson runs circles around most of us in his knowledge of advanced subjects in mathematics, and Weil loved mathematics, and more than held her own with her brother's circle of friends. 

Su's appeal in this book is that we read others, and perhaps ourselves differently when we think of mathematics. For too long, he contends, we have left math to the whiz kids who can solve problems quickly and the eccentrics. For many of us, math is either irrelevant or a memory of shame. He contends we are all mathematicians, and all teachers of math and invites us to read ourselves, others, and the practice of mathematics differently.

His contention is that mathematics fosters human flourishing. We flourish as we develop certain virtues, and our pursuit of virtues is aroused by basic desires or longings. Longings like that of exploration, such as how to explain the gaps in the rings of Saturn. Or the longing for meaning, such as the stories we may use to make sense of the Pythagorean theorem. There is play, particularly as we explore the interesting patterns we find in math, engaging in inductive inquiry, and deductive reasoning to explain what we find. We come up with shortcuts, and try to figure out why they work. We long for beauty, and discover it in the sensory beauty of a fractal, the wondrous beauty of an elegant equation, the insightful beauty of the dualities in math (multiplication and division, sine and cosine), and the transcendent beauty when we realize that math can explain the world. We long for permanence and truth and find these in mathematical ideas that do not change.

Math cultivates virtue as we struggle. Su gives the lie to the whiz kid who comes up with the quick solution. Real creativity in math involves struggle, the failed solutions that lead to a novel way of seeing the problem that yields the solution. Math's power may be coercive or creative. The creative use of power multiplies math's power in the lives of others rather than showing oneself to be powerful. Math can be used to include or exclude and may be a source of either justice or injustice. Math can be a source of freedom--particularly if it is coupled with justice and extend welcome to all. When this happens, mathematics creates good communities, not ones that exclude those who don't "measure up." Math sees everyone as capable of discovery in math. Suddenly, you have a group of people engaged in joyous discovery.

Above all, Su believes that love is the ultimate virtue in math as in all things. This is not merely the love of math, but the love of people that believes "that you and every person in your life can flourish in mathematics." One of the beauties of this book is that Su models this in the respectful way he engages Christopher's questions and desire to learn math. It is evident that he sought Christopher's advice on the book, and includes in each chapter one of Christopher's reflections. At the end of the epilogue, an interaction between the author and Christopher, Su mentions that Christopher will share in the book's royalties.

When you read this book, I suspect you will agree that Francis Su is the math teacher we all wish we had. He reminded me of one high school teacher, Mr. Erickson, who made math fun, and was not above engaging in dialogues with his invisible friend Harvey during class. Su helps us to discover the fun in math by including math puzzles in each chapter. He offers hints or solutions to each in the back, but I was reminded of the math puzzles I used to delight solving in Mr. Erickson's class, and as a kid. I found myself wanting to find some math books and brush up my math. He got me curious about the mathematical realities I could do well to pay more attention to, like trying to make sense out of the analytics on a website and what the patterns mean, or the correlation between voting percentages and incarceration patterns.

I wonder if others will have this reaction and if in fact that is the author's intent. Even teachers can lose their "first love" of math, and lose touch with the desires that math aroused in their lives. Might renewal come with remembering, remembering ourselves as we consider the student before us,  allowing that remembering to shape how we teach? Su does us a valuable service in awakening us to the ways we flourish through math, motivating us to share with others the abundance we have discovered, even as Christopher now teaches other inmates the math he has learned, flourishing even more as he does so.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.
Profile Image for Anima.
432 reviews53 followers
Currently reading
July 27, 2021
“No—I’m not saying that math gives you greater claim to worthiness or human dignity. I’m saying that the pursuit of math can, if grounded in human desires, build aspects of character and habits of mind that will allow you to live a more fully human life and experience the best of what life has to offer. None of us is wholly virtuous; we all are works in progress with room to grow. And there are many ways to grow in virtue, not just in mathematics. But does the proper practice of mathematics build particular virtues, like the ability to think clearly and to reason well? Unequivocally yes, and it may do so in a distinctive way.”
1 review24 followers
February 6, 2021
大四下和prof su上topology,当时就能感受到他的课堂上有一股温暖的力量——十几个学生,轮流展示讨论自己的证明,虽然还是能发现有的同学思维特别敏捷,但神奇的是我(作为一个连analysis都没学过的路人)却不会觉得自己怎么啥都不会。毕竟手里的证明是自己struggle出来的,毕竟就算证明错了prof su小天使也会认真的剖析哪里错为什么错我们又学到了什么,毕竟课堂营造出的氛围就是要和身边的小伙伴一起合作进步,然后庆祝+享受每一个小小的成果。真的特别美好的体验(除了大四下没时间以外)。读了这本书才知道prof su对inclusion和做数学的价值有多么深入的思考。尤其喜欢关于struggle的章节(虽然有点震惊一节课居然有十个人抄作业…),也非常感激prof su作为一个功成名就的数学家把自己成长经历中的vulnerabilities展示给世人。妈蛋chris以后就是我的role model!
Profile Image for Pete Wung.
139 reviews7 followers
February 24, 2020
There are moments in one’s reading life where one come across an unexpected book which gives one pleasure in absorbing the text and revelation in ruminating about the message. This was my feeling after I finished Mathematics for Human Flourishing by Frances Su.
This is a book that I discovered when I saw Thomas Lin, the editor of Quanta Magazine touting it on Twitter. Being curious and being as that the author gave me a code which gave me 25% off on the purchase of the book, I jumped at the chance.

It was one the best chance that I have ever taken.

Professor Su is a mathematician at Harvey Mudd College in California. He was also the President of the mathematical Association of America; this book came out of an address that he made in 2014 as the president of MAA. I have not read the address, but I have read the book and the book is an amazing amalgam of intellectual wonderings about life and what humans hold to be noble and mathematics of course. The author asks question, many questions. Illuminating questions that is much beyond quick and facile answers. He also lays himself out honestly and courageously, sharing with the readers his quest to becoming a mathematician, on his insecurities about growing up Asian in the United States, his feelings about being in an over achieving family culture, and working in an art form that America does not appreciate or value. He also introduces his friend Christopher Jackson, an inmate in the penal law system of Georgia. Chris had committed a crime when he was very young, aged 19, and he's has been in the penal system for what he had done. While he was in prison he also started to dabble in mathematics, soon discovering that he a passion for mathematics and also that he was adept at mathematics, enough to be a researcher, per Prof. Su’s estimation. Prof. Su shared some of his correspondence with Chris Jackson. The correspondences were about math, but also about many things beyond math, which helped illustrate the main thesis of the exposition.

Prof. Su chose thirteen concepts, words, and ideas to delineate his feelings about mathematics. He uses them to dive deeply into the ideas that mathematics enhances and improves, he uses these concepts to expound on what it means for him to be doing mathematics. The structure of the book is completely non-traditional, and it is breathtaking in its scope.

The central tenet of the book of course is laid out in the title: Mathematics for Human Flourishing. The author’s thesis is that mathematics is the path towards making humans flourish in their reality, to give us humans a path towards reaching realms that are beyond our initially meager imaginations, that doing math is not just a task or chore or a talent but a necessary spiritual practice to advance our society, to feed our naturally fecund imaginations, to sate our very human yearning for meaning in this life and in this world.

This thesis a giant leap for those who are math phobic, but it is a heroic declaration for those who are passionate about mathematics. Professor Su does yeoman’s work in using those concepts to illuminate his thesis: flourishing, exploration, meaning, play, beauty, permanence, truth, struggle, power, justice, freedom, community, and love to flesh out his argument that not only is mathematics a practical and beautiful practice, but it is also a critical necessity for human thriving in our internal lives. The doing of mathematics makes us better people, it makes us kinder, more patient, more cognizant of the world around us, it makes us more curious, it makes us learn that our world is more than just what we see in front of us.

Ever the detailed technician, Prof. Su carefully lists the virtues that comes through each of the concepts he chose to highlight in each chapter. He assiduously frames his chapters to clearly illustrate each of the virtues and connects them to each of the words he used to name the chapters. He also lists them all at the end of the book, to make sure the readers understood his point.
The completeness of his authorly duties does not end there, he provides discussion questions at the end, as well as hints and solutions to the puzzles he provides at the end of his chapters. He was very complete in pursuing his mission.

Unlike many of the books regarding mathematics, this one goes into the reasons why mathematicians become mathematicians, more importantly, the book amply demonstrates the point that mathematics is not only a magnificent art to pursue, it is also one that is desirable one to pursuit. This book is enlightening, inspirational, and gives hope to everyone who is willing to read it.

Profile Image for Yingtong Guo.
23 reviews14 followers
May 29, 2020
I discovered professor Su through his lecture series on YouTube on analysis. They're based on Rudin, which really isn't an easy read, but he teaches the material in such a rigorous yet intuitive way that it's impossible not to develop an interest in the subject. He was "promoting" this book on his website, so I decided to check it out.

Parts of his writing, especially his chapter on love, made me feel like I was about to receive the Eucharist. Yes, we should be talking about love, justice, community (these are all section names), etc. etc., but I really wanted nothing more than some professional perspectives on what it means to study math, and world peace - though beautiful - is just not an answer I felt happy about.

That said, "Mathematics for Human Flourishing" also made me think. Professor Su called G.H. Hardy out for claiming that math is an elite field reserved for the truly gifted in "A Mathematician's apology." Su believes instead that everyone who nurtures a passion and welcomes a struggle can succeed. Although I agree that Hardy put too much emphasis on the value of natural abilities, I seriously doubt that a pile of participation awards equates to a Fields Medal. On the other hand, deluding students into thinking they have "immeasurable" mathematical potential is much more of a sport today than in Hardy's era, but at the same time, a healthy amount of confidence, maybe bordering on the delusional, might sometimes be the missing ingredient for bringing about a significant breakthrough. Given the latter, professor Su probably has a point.

My favorite chapters in "Mathematics for Human Flourishing" were "beauty" and "struggle." Professor Su distinguishes between 4 types of beauty in math:
* Sensory beauty: the beauty of patterned objects that we experience with our senses, such as can be found in Escher's artwork, for example.
* Wondrous beauty: the sense of awe we feel when confronted with, say, a curious conjecture.
* Insightful beauty: the beauty we experience when we truly get to understand something, e.g. when we come up with an elegant proof for a theorem.
* Transcendent beauty: a greater truth of some kind, the beauty hidden in deeper insights that connect known ideas.

Although I've only caught glimpses of the "sensory," "wondrous," and "insightful" beauty of math in the past, which can be pretty mind-blowing in their own right, I can only imagine what it's like to know "transcendent" beauty. Since math is so intense and difficult, I don't know why some people are so unshakeable in their belief that it's worth it to find out, and maybe it's not. But there must be something about the exclusive nature of true mathematical beauty, i.e. it's only accessible to people who truly "struggle" to find it, that elevates it above the beauty of music, literature, or art (in a way). Still, I'd gladly exchange some of my willingness to "struggle" for beautiful solutions for a greater aptitude for the subject any time. One day, I hope to understand it enough to be able to convince myself that I truly do appreciate it. This book strengthened that hope.

Also, hats off to Christopher Jackson (and thanks to professor Su for including his story in this book). The most inspiring person I've read about all year.
Profile Image for Michiel.
340 reviews63 followers
July 12, 2020
Mathematics is often seen as cold and logical science. If the layman should be interested in mathematics, it is because it is so darn useful. Su holds a powerful appeal to appreciate the warm and human side of [[mathematics]]. The book is not primarily aimed towards mathematical professionals but rather towards any person who can understand the beauty in numbers or enjoys thinking about a puzzle. Though the chapters of this book, Su explores how mathematical thinking relates to various human [[virtues]], such as exploring, beauty, struggle, sense of community and, most of all, [[love]]. As a particular striking narrative device, Su uses his correspondence with Christopher, a young convict who studies advanced mathematics as a way to better himself. I think the content of this book will stay in my mind for a while.
Profile Image for Gavin.
1,065 reviews306 followers
June 27, 2022
A society without mathematical affection is like a city without concerts, parks, or museums.

Something went wrong, that I don't love this book. I think the technical is essential for real intellectual work; normal mind-numbing maths education put me off for years; I thirst for meaning; it's by a teacher at one of the best maths schools in the world (actual best, not just Fancy). But it's essentially a hippie self-help book which got into a university press. I'm surprised it doesn't open by saying namaste to me.
People often think of abstraction as stripping away meaning. But in fact, abstraction does the opposite—it enriches meaning. When you see that two things have similar structures or behavior, then those similarities create a connection, a new meaning for you that wasn’t there before. Poincaré famously said that “mathematics is the art of giving the same name to different things".

“make your daughter practice math. She’ll thank you later.”13 The op-ed never asked the question of how to teach math so she’ll thank you now.

The list of values at the back is shockingly poorly conceptualised. But Su is a powerful analyst - just one rule for abstractions and another for humans. (All I want is humanism without sentimental overreach. It's unclear whether I can have this.)

One problem: he is too nice for me. (“Let me start by thanking you, the reader, for taking the time to sit with this book and these ideas. Simone Weil said, “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity”) It's a very Christian book. Not in its metaphysics: in its intentional naivety, piety, humility, and cuddliness (though Weil and Buber and MacIntyre come up). He is credulous about the findings of educational psychology, including the absurd Pygmalion effect size. Every chapter includes a letter from a maths student in prison, the book ends with a long awkward interview with him, and Su gave some fraction of the royalties to him. One exception: chapter 9, a laudation for power. A huge number of smart people talk as if coercive power was the only sort. They are poisoned by paying too much attention to society.

Years of study have still not given me the virtues Su rightly names - persistence, patience, disposition towards abstract beauty, gaman. Ain't giving up though.
Maryam Mirzakhani... once said: “The beauty of mathematics only shows itself to more patient followers."
I know.
At my local hiking club, there’s bonding over a shared love of hiking. When it’s time to go, we split into different skill levels to do the hike at various speeds. I have no trouble admitting that I’m a slow hiker” By contrast, in mathematics the joy often requires the skill.

Borcherds made me laugh:
“I was over the moon when I proved the moonshine conjecture. If I get a good result I spend several days feeling really happy about it.

The puzzles are all nice and can be solved in your head, a good property. But read Rota, Hersch, Taleb, Lockhart, Gardner, Byers for the meat.
Profile Image for JJ.
89 reviews
December 24, 2021
As I study math in college, I frequently get sidetracked into thinking about the "external goods" that math can help me achieve, whether it be prestige, reputation, respect from others, an ego boost, or a stable career. Focused on completing assignments and doing well on tests, I too often lose touch with math's inherent value.

This book is a gentle yet passionate reminder of why learning and doing math is so important. Rather than focusing on beautiful theorems and theories or all of math's cool applications in the real world, it focuses 12 human virtues that math builds. Each chapter is devoted to a single virtue; they begin with a few thought-provoking quotes, followed by an explanation of how math builds the given virtue and the importance of the virtue for human flourishing.

Prof. Su and Mr. Jackson convey their thoughts on math and their experiences with it with beautiful simplicity. The chapters and Jackson's letters are caringly arranged; I appreciate how they come together to form an overarching story. A number of interesting math puzzles are speckled in for good measure (I've yet to give any of them much thought). What an awesome, encouraging book!
251 reviews10 followers
January 13, 2020
This is a book about math. And a book about being human. And a book about the connections between those two. Francis Su has a lot to say and every teacher, student, parent, or person (no, these categories are not mutually exclusive) should read this book.
35 reviews
January 15, 2021
This book was excellent. It counts now among my favorite books of all time. I will return to the book later to finish working the puzzles and also write a more extensive review here.

---- Update 2021 ----
I will still return to finish more puzzles but here is the first edition of the "more extensive review":

I came to this work from a recommendation following the horrific events of 2020. Like the author, I find great joy in the study and practice of mathematics. I recognize that such intellectual freedom is a privilege that is unfortunately not afforded to as many as it should be.

Is mathematics created or discovered? That well worn question, like most questions that incite unresolvable debates, is missing the point entirely. The uncontroversial fact is that Mathematics is a human activity. It is only because of this that we can even talk about aspects such as innovation and beauty with respect to mathematics.

This book addresses an uncomfortable truth head on. Unfortunately, like many other human activities, Mathematics has been tainted by mankind's propensity for evil against itself.

Mathematics, like most human endeavors, operates by analogy. Also key to mathematics is the interplay of the specific and the general, each informing the other.

In engaging, lucid text, this book takes the specific tale of one poignant piece of injustice to a mathematically motivated individual and weaves it together with general mathematical principles, ideas, and values.

By analogy, the author then projects these mathematical desiderata onto the larger societal context this showing that mathematics teaches values that can be harnessed for the benefit of all.

As a few posters that I saw while growing up state: "Math is Power." It's not an accident that one of the core principles of the ancient Pythagorean order was secrecy. Millennia later, access to powerful ideas are still threatening to some whose interest is not in Human Flourishing but only the amplification of their own short-term gains.

This is the world we live in but it helps no one to just resign ourselves to say, "It is what it is" (one of my least favorite pop phrases right behind "very unique") This book takes the bold step of not just telling it like it is, but imploring us all that it does not HAVE to be this way. We have the power to change this.

I hope this book inspires even the slightest bit of such change. My fear is that the people who need to read this book will never see it. However, it is great that this effort is being promoted as part of social justice initiatives.

Dr. Su is continuing to fight the good fight. This book is an existence proof that like-minded people are out there, and are willing to do something to advance humanity. I won't give up just yet on the better angels of our nature.
3 reviews6 followers
January 7, 2020
I got Francis Su's book because of his essay on grace in teaching, and partway through the first chapter I am already smitten.

This book makes me smile.
65 reviews
February 2, 2020
A beautiful book, born out of a speech Francis Su gave to a gathering of mathematicians about 3 years ago. While reading it, I could not help but hear Francis’s exceedingly kind voice on every page. As a math professor, this book came across as a gentle, lovingly written admonition to practice what I preach. If I agree with Francis, that “To miss out on mathematics is to live without an opportunity to play with beautiful ideas and see the world in a new light,” then what am I doing to ensure that those I have influence with don’t have to miss out? And yet the book is not aimed at teachers of mathematics, the book is aimed at humans . . . Humans who have relationships to each other and to mathematics and who need to realize that the two need not be separate.

I have had many of my students read the speech from 2017, and I discovered that the real people introduced there (namely Christopher & Simone) had the biggest impact on my students. So it is terrific to see these two people (and more) play a still prominent role in the book, Christopher so much that his name is on the cover and is earning a portion of the book’s royalties.

I believe this book is a gift to the mathematical community, both present and future. I’m sure I will loan it out to colleagues and students, but I will always request it’s return. I will need to reread it from time to time.
Profile Image for Lēna.
52 reviews3 followers
July 7, 2021
Gives an innovative and unique perspective on math.

Would make you love math all over again, and If you never have, it has the potential of changing how you feel about it.

Recommended to :
everyone: would let you in through a door you’d most likely not explored before in relation to math,

It’s also extremely recommended to students (to enforce their passion for math at a deeper level. They’d come to understand its relevance from an angle which rarely had ever been considered: something integral to their humanity. Which I find is essential, especially when math as a discipline relies on abstracting reality. It is easy to feel alienated from it and to presume its uses are restricted to those abstracted dimensions and in the realms of science and technology only. To see math applied in other forms: such as in the arts and humanities, is helpful - to realize it enhances your morality or aids in gaining virtues, somehow, is beautiful to consider. More research should be afforded in this area.

It’s a beautiful book that reminds you of the potentials of math, and also of its beauty in its applied forms including those in relation to human virtues.

Lovely book, really.
Profile Image for William Schram.
1,657 reviews63 followers
October 9, 2020
Francis Su wrote a beautiful book on what mathematics means to him and others in Mathematics For Human Flourishing. The framework is a correspondence between Su and Christopher Jackson, an inmate in federal prison. Each chapter contains a personal reflection by the author and a series of puzzles.

People often equate doing mathematics with arithmetic, or they dismiss math as something that they cannot do. Su tells us that this is an unfortunate mistake. Mathematics is an endeavor, a journey to uncover the unknown. Mathematics should be something that all can enjoy, but biases often enter into the equation.

Mathematics For Human Flourishing reminds me of A Mathematician's Apology by G H Hardy. I enjoyed it.
Profile Image for GONZA.
6,264 reviews103 followers
January 18, 2020
The story shared in this book is illuminating, it brings on not only a renewed love for maths, but for hope and love also. I really liked it and I am not so in love with math myself.

La storia(e) condivise dall'autore in questo libro inspira i migliori sentimenti e non soltanto l'amore per la matematica, e io non sono a mia volta una grande amante della materia in se stessa, ma questo é piú che altro un libro sulle emozioni che la matematica puó stimolare e non solo lei.

Profile Image for Shawn Gray.
75 reviews
February 21, 2022
Great listen! I found the idea of a growth mindset and the importance of creativity in learning and problem-solving very inspiring. Chris's contribution is immeasurable. As someone who has recently stumbled upon an interest and appreciation for mathematics and has begun self-studying calculus, I found his story resonated with me. The droll memorization that is characterized by the way math was taught in school did not give me the appreciation for the beauty of mathematics I have recently acquired as an adult.
Profile Image for Yumeko.
94 reviews9 followers
October 22, 2021
How do I explain how awesome Christopher is to me. What an amusing way to develop fondness for someone you know mostly from his letters.
I feel strangely embarrassed for liking this. In many aspects it was almost like a children's book to me. That is, too many things I've forgotten.
Undeniably charming, despite at times coming off as rather conclusive about human desires, and expressing sentiments not new to me. It was motivating. It was sincere in it's message. It was relatable.
It was terribly intimate, and terribly thoughtful.
Profile Image for Robert Bell.
3 reviews
August 10, 2021
One of the most inspiring books I've read in a very long time. Professor Su's target audience is anyone who has a curiosity about mathematics, especially if you've ever felt like learning mathematics, e.g. in the classroom, was an unwelcoming or otherwise negative experience. If you teach mathematics, I think this is a must read.
Profile Image for Jolie Ren.
20 reviews1 follower
January 21, 2023
I was not surprised to find out that Su was a follower of Jesus, seeing how he quotes the Bible in a few places of the book, and strangely, it reminded me of the chapters that Paul wrote, especially in regards to love and suffering.

My dream is to one day teach a course in college. I especially agree on how Su approaches teaching - one that is active and engaging - and he even does that in this book, with puzzles, personal experiences, and correspondences with an inmate who is learning math! As an aspiring academic in STEM, how can I more inclusively tackle my implicit biases, and create teaching methods that encourages curiosity about the people around us? As a woman POC, how can I advocate for myself, for others like me, and for others unlike me, in a way that begs people to, simply, listen?

I know this review will lean towards one of a Christian’s perspective, but I can’t help but think how math and God’s word are similarly used and corrupted. The easiest way to teach math concepts and the Bible was rote memorization, and yet, both subjects are very rich in meaning, leaving the curious listener dissatisfied by their seeming simplicities and perhaps eventually, finding little meaning in them whatsoever. We see great math experts and pastors for their wealth of knowledge and “rule-following,” without questioning whether their actions are rooted in genuine kindness. Both math and the word reveal how the world works and the underlying nature of human beings, and yet, both have been used to exclude and manipulate power dynamics, even within their own respective communities! However, when math and the word are used in the “purest” ways, ie for the unconditional benefit of others, both have the potential to engage in and advocate for “human flourishing.”

Anyways, in spite of the long review, I still have much to say, and I’d love to have further conversations about this book. The intersection between science and the humanities is just *chefs kiss*
Profile Image for Ann.
306 reviews5 followers
January 29, 2022
As one whose last math class was plane geometry 65 years ago, this is not a book I would normally have picked up. But the 5-star rating from a reviewer I follow, plus curiosity about the title, led me to request it from Interlibrary Loan. Hooked from the very first chapter, I read to the end, including notes and acknowledgments. It was full of unusual puzzles and “why” questions to ponder. I learned that I was a “math explorer.” I liked how Professor Su wrote and thought and cared about people. He would have been my favorite teacher, had I been in one of his classes.

Each chapter focuses on a different virtue or positive concept as it relates to math: flourishing, exploration, meaning, play, beauty, permanence, truth, struggle, power, justice, freedom, community, love. Adding to the book’s appeal is Professor Su’s amazing mentee, Christopher Jackson, a young African American inmate of a federal penitentiary facing a 32-year sentence with no parole. Excerpts from their ongoing correspondence reveal how Jackson, under incredibly adverse circumstances, not only spends his meager prison earnings on advanced math books and studies them for hours each day but also tutors fellow inmates, that they might find work and flourish after their impending release. I learned from the acknowledgments that Su has arranged for Jackson to get a share of the royalties. That made me glad I had already bought a copy for my grandson.

Mathematics for Human Flourishing appeals to both intellect and human interest. It focuses outward and challenges readers to be encouragers, especially for the marginalized, who are so often discouraged by teachers, counselors and employers. No wonder it won the 2021 Euler Book Prize for outstanding books about mathematics. Every public library needs this for its collection.
Profile Image for Nathan H..
49 reviews
March 10, 2022
The idea of this book is similar to Mihir Desai's The Wisdom of Finance: Discovering Humanity in the World of Risk and Return which I read late last year, although I think Desai did a better job of executing on the concept.

Whereas The Wisdom of Finance leans on parables, real-world examples, and stories from literature, Mathematics relies more on pure logic and explanation. The anecdotes and stories in this book are relatively few and far between (the letters from Christopher Jackson do a lot of heavy lifting in this regard).

"In mathematics, we are always quantifying our statements, domains, bounds, and assumptions so that our claims are in fact true. We are trained to know the limits of our arguments, and that helps us not to overgeneralize."

This excerpt ("Truth", page 110) characterizes much of what I'm getting at here — the text embodies a lot of what Su describes above as "mathematical" writing/thinking, and the precise quantification to a certain extent diminished how powerful and entertaining I think the book could have been had it left a little bit more to the imagination and added more specific stories.

In a sense, the book was too general — while the generalities were indeed quantified, more specifics (stories, examples, parables), even if they weren't exactly generalizable to the topic at hand, would have made the book more engaging and memorable.
80 reviews
December 23, 2021
A lovely book, explaining what mathematics can be. The problems are enjoyable and the text is thoughtful and well written.

One note of criticism is in the repeated calls for teachers to teach math more humanely, while ignoreing the systemic issues of teaching. I worry parts of this could be read as a demand for teachers to do even more, which is simply not possible without letting go of other things. When he calls out those teachers who say "I teach math, not kids" Su ignores that they are often crying out "I can't teach math, and foster deep relationships on the time I have been given, with the number of students I have been asked to and with so little support." It isnt that what Su is saying is wrong, only that he didn't highlight the systemic aspect as much as I felt it needed.
Profile Image for Peter Edman.
5 reviews2 followers
July 7, 2021
Excellent discussion and treatment of the theme. Honest and charitable. A model for Christian public engagement. Virtue approach helps a lot.

A bit too defensive in tone in places; you can hear apologizing rather than apologetics. Careful distinctions of terms and categories except in one minor case. Not even a mathematician can define systemic accusations convincingly. The appeal to generalities in that case is telling.

But overall very helpful and inspiring and helpful even beyond its field.
Profile Image for Lindsey.
139 reviews3 followers
April 7, 2021
This book really touched me—mathematics through the lens of virtues! I was touched by Francis Su’s experience of mentoring a man currently serving time in prison. Through the story of Francis and Chris’ interactions, I could see in practice how Francis intentionally mentored and fostered mathematics for human flourishing. I was touched by the chapter titled Justice as well as Francis’ demand for mathematicians to practice asset based approaches to learning.

“Believe that you and every person on your life can flourish in mathematics.”

“Believe that every human being can discover an affection for mathematics.”

And my favorite: “those of us who have experienced the freedoms of mathematics have a significant responsibility to welcome others to those freedoms as well.”

Profile Image for Robert Murphy.
278 reviews20 followers
April 14, 2021
Good book. Very thoughtful and thought provoking. Could've done without the deep-dive into Woke-ism out of the blue (I recommend skipping chapter 10). It seemed very out of step with the rest of the book (e.g. if we see inequity, should we assume prejudice? Mathematically, we should look to establish causation before we assume.)
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