"Do you want to read a mathematics book?" his professor asked him
September 29, 2018 8:17 PM   Subscribe

Mefi's own Jordan Ellenberg profiles John Urschel, who walked away from an NFL career to pursue his PhD in math at MIT.

Also the piece reflects on the paths that bring people to math --
We don’t have a system for making mathematicians, the way we do for football. [...]

Finding your way to mathematics is still old-fashioned and analog. It relies on the chance encounter between two people, or between a person and a book, or between a person and an idea. If you know mathematicians, you know some who seem to have been on the track since childhood, and others who are only in the business by a stroke of luck. Persi Diaconis was a kid magician who became friends with the mathematical popularizer Martin Gardner on the card trick invention circuit. Joan Birman was bored in by-the-numbers calculus in college, became an engineer, then found at her first job building microwave frequency meters that one of those boring problems was exactly what she needed to get the meter to exhibit the right response curve. Solomon Lefschetz had both his hands blown off in an industrial accident and had to find a career he could undertake without them. Rodrigo Bañuelos was a teenager working in a car wash, with only one year of formal education, when he met Juan Francisco Lara, a Ph.D. student at UCLA who got him into Pasadena City College, where he took eighth-grade algebra for the first time; now he’s a math professor at Purdue. Laura DeMarco was planning to be a math teacher until her sophomore year of college, when a law professor tipped her off that professors do research. She’d had no idea. Even the math professors? Yes, said her probability prof, and that’s where she started. June Huh, an unpublished poet trying to transition into science journalism, sat in on Heisuke Hironaka’s algebraic geometry class with the idea of writing a profile; instead, Huh dumped journalism and became an algebraic geometer.
posted by LobsterMitten (27 comments total) 81 users marked this as a favorite
 
I was just listening to a Freakonomics episode ("How Sports Became Us") and Urschel makes an appearance on that too! He is such a fascinating person.

I enjoyed this profile; thank you for the post.
posted by invokeuse at 9:22 PM on September 29, 2018


This is a wonderfully written profile. I remember when he quit football two days after that damning CTE study came out. I read an article about him at the time where he mentioned that he had once been unable to do math for a few days after getting a concussion on the field. That is terrifying. I'm glad he quit playing, especially after learning that he didn't enjoy the NFL as much as he had expected to.
posted by sockermom at 9:27 PM on September 29, 2018 [16 favorites]


I'm glad he quit, I was worried about his brain.
posted by praemunire at 9:50 PM on September 29, 2018 [5 favorites]


His brain was the first thing I thought about, too, and how valuable it is to what he's doing.

Everyone brain is pretty valuable, actually, and sometimes we trade its wellbeing for other transitory things. Crazy.
posted by SpacemanStix at 10:02 PM on September 29, 2018 [2 favorites]


I... Want very much to hear these other mathematicians' stories.
posted by twoplussix at 10:05 PM on September 29, 2018 [9 favorites]


I really really liked this story, thanks!
posted by infini at 12:45 AM on September 30, 2018


I was going to be an engineer because that's what you did if you were inclined towards math or science at my upper middle class high school. If you were smart, you were supposed to be a doctor or a lawyer, but, if you were resisting those, engineer would do. I lucked out about three times over. I randomly picked up Cryptonomicon in the library, which led to Andrew Hodges's biography of Turing, which led to long discussions with the math team coach when I was the only kid who showed up to practice, and those conversations were more or less what convinced me that "mathematician" was an occupation people actually had. I was pretty darn mediocre at math team--I don't have the knack for problem solving competitions--but my year didn't have a kid who was clearly head and shoulders above the rest (or it was me), so after a decent performance by me and a truly embarrassing score from my friend, I became the oral competitor. The oral competition is much more akin to "real" math and I was pretty decent at it. I think giving me this coveted spot bizarrely made me better at the regular competition--I was moving a couple of years ago, found a medal and had to call my brother to say "Did I really win the individual competition at regionals senior year? That's completely implausible." (Neither of us remember. But either I did or stole the medal from someone.)

Anyway, I owe a lot to Mrs Gibson and her willingness to hang out and talk to me for an hour and a half rather than just sending us both home.

We don’t have a system for making mathematicians, the way we do for football.

Well, we do, but it definitely favors upper middle class kids who are good at math competitions, which is only a small subset of people who would make good mathematicians. (People who are good at math competitions tend to be good at math, but the converse is not true.) I was a partial product of that system, if not a complete product. I didn't come out high school quite groomed for math (see above), I didn't come near the IMO or MathCamp (which I didn't know existed), but I went to a university with a very good math department, I got told to apply to REUs, I got in to the REUs, I took the basic graduate courses as an undergrad, I got into a good PhD program, etc. But there was something missing from me that makes one successful in academia. I think it's perhaps some combination of ambition and self-confidence. (Of course, needing access to medical care that is not universally available is also a barrier to needing to be willing to live anywhere. But, even if it wasn't, I also don't think I was willing to take any job.) Or maybe it's just that I started down this road at 18 and by the time I grew up, I had most of a PhD but didn't know why I was doing it, other than that all other options didn't appeal.
posted by hoyland at 4:15 AM on September 30, 2018 [12 favorites]


Interesting that he came from an upper-middle-class professional family (mom was a lawyer, dad was a CT surgeon) and was really good at math from an early age, but also happens to be a large black man... so he ended up in the NFL.

The article takes great pains to describe mathematicians as "conterminous with the range of human beings" (which is such a mathy way to put it), but also states that < 2% of mathematicians are Black. Those two sentences are mutually exclusive.
posted by basalganglia at 5:02 AM on September 30, 2018 [6 favorites]


I still think Robert Schneider's arc from being producer of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea to visiting assistant prof at Emory (and now UGA) with an Erdős-Bacon-Sabbath (EBS) number of 7 is pretty cool.
posted by scruss at 5:28 AM on September 30, 2018 [3 favorites]


I had most of a PhD but didn't know why I was doing it, other than that all other options didn't appeal.
That’s remarkably similar to my position when I got my math PhD.
I call myself a scientist now, because most people who call themselves applied mathematicians do work that is far more abstract and formal than what I do, but I’ll always be a mathematician doing science, rather than a scientist doing math.
posted by SaltySalticid at 5:36 AM on September 30, 2018 [3 favorites]


I didn't know that math teams were a thing. If they were, either my school didn't have one, or I was never invited.

Until a reached college, I never had a math teacher that seemed to be passionate about math, or who treated math as anything more than a thing we had to learn.

When I reached college, most of the professors were distant, and I was often one of few female students. The default "he" was everywhere. (There were two professors that stick out as exceptions, I hope I took the time to leave them good reviews.) I got the math degree, but didn't continue. I went into linguistics instead - a field where the professors were much more inviting, where I was offered opportunities, etc.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 6:40 AM on September 30, 2018 [5 favorites]


what a great article! Thanks!
posted by Morpeth at 7:07 AM on September 30, 2018


I didn't know that math teams were a thing. If they were, either my school didn't have one, or I was never invited.

I'm not sure they are a thing most places. Illinois happens to have a state math contest and the Chicago area has a league (despite the name, it's not just the north suburbs), but I gather that's pretty unusual. ARML technically exists across the US (with perhaps no entries from Alaska and Hawaii) and is definitely a thing that most people would likely only know about if they moved in math contest circles. (I knew it's a thing because they'd announce the tryouts at the final NSML meet. But no one from my school ever went.)
posted by hoyland at 9:09 AM on September 30, 2018


basalganglia His parents divorced when he was three, and his mother did most of the work of raising him.
posted by Ideefixe at 9:41 AM on September 30, 2018 [1 favorite]


Ideefixe, sure, but that scenario also describes the home life of lots of kids. Maybe a quarter of my high school class (upper middle class, explicit focus on STEM, mostly white and Asian kids) had divorced parents, and the vast majority of those lived with their moms.

I'm calling out the (likely unconscious) thought process that led the adults in his life to look at a 6'3'', 275 lb Black teenager and say "NFL" rather than "PhD."
posted by basalganglia at 10:19 AM on September 30, 2018 [2 favorites]


Now I've got "Do you want to build a theorem?" to that tune from Frozen in my head.
posted by clawsoon at 10:31 AM on September 30, 2018 [3 favorites]


(Very slightly) in their defense, the traits that made him an NFL-caliber athlete are both significantly rarer than the traits that make him a PhD-caliber intellect and significantly easier to detect. Plus, as pointed out in the article, there is a fairly refined system designed to sort out people with that level of athletic talent and shepherd them to the professional level, whereas nothing of the sort exists for mathematicians.

I do think your point about the tension between “mathematicians are all sorts of humans!” and “there are incredibly few black mathematicians” is correct. That really needed more interrogation.
posted by protocoach at 10:31 AM on September 30, 2018 [3 favorites]


One of my goals as an academic advisor is to get my strongest students to go to office hours and introduce themselves to their professors. This sounds so simple, but a lot of them won't do it without prodding. They would go to office hours if they were confused about something, but they understand everything, so they don't see a point in bothering the professor. I don't think this would be an issue at a small liberal arts college: they would know their professors automatically, and professors would reach out to the students who were getting A+s in their classes. But at my institution, you can glide through, racking up better-than-perfect grades, without ever getting the kind of relationships that allow you to go to grad school or even consider grad school as a possibility.
I'm calling out the (likely unconscious) thought process that led the adults in his life to look at a 6'3'', 275 lb Black teenager and say "NFL" rather than "PhD."
I'm not sure that they looked at him and said NFL, though. Like many students, he tried out for the football team in high school. Like a tiny, tiny minority of students, he achieved a level of excellence on the high-school football team that led to him being recruited by a major college football team. There, he achieved a level of excellence that led to him being drafted by the NFL. Lots and lots of young men, of all races, play football. He had an NFL career because he played football better than almost all of them.

The point here is that there's not really a similar pathway for *anyone* to get a PhD in math. You can have a fuckton of aptitude for math, and you're not necessarily going to be steered into a math PhD. That's less true for some kids (upper class kids and the children of academics, mostly), but it's true for the overwhelming majority of American young people.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 10:36 AM on September 30, 2018 [2 favorites]


Like many students, he tried out for the football team in high school. Like a tiny, tiny minority of students, he achieved a level of excellence on the high-school football team that led to him being recruited by a major college football team. There, he achieved a level of excellence that led to him being drafted by the NFL. Lots and lots of young men, of all races, play football. He had an NFL career because he played football better than almost all of them.

But if there were any honors or after-school programs did his teachers think of him? Was he pushed towards the more advanced math classes, and praised for his aptitude? Did he have teachers who told his mom in parent-teacher conferences that he had talent, who suggested extra study, who told him he should go to college and pursue those studies? Reaching the NFL, like getting a PhD in math, doesn't just require talent, it requires someone nurturing that talent and hours and hours and hours of work. It requires thousands of choices by the adults in a child's life to not only see a spark but push the child to pursue the goal, even when the kid doesn't want to. It requires the intervention of mentors--which could be coaches or math teachers--who take the kid under their wing and tell the parents what a gem they've got. It requires a school system that can offer the kid the opportunities to blossom.

It's those thousands of choices and little opportunities that get influenced by our biases, individual and societal, and result in the racial disparities in academic success and STEM participation. It's not just about this one player. It's about the tens of thousands of players who could've succeeded in something else but were pushed solely into sports with an eye on going pro but ultimately never got past college--and whose talents in other areas could've been cultivated if assumptions hadn't been made about what those talents were. It doesn't even have to be a PhD--a bachelor's in one of the "harder" STEM sciences, like engineering or physics or applied math or computer science, can get you really far in the world. But I don't know how many of these players were pulled aside and told "you've got a real talent in this, and you could go far, and consider backing off of sports and taking these classes."

The situation is worsened by the profit-and-glory-oriented mentality of college sports where players are encouraged to spend more time in practice then on their studies, are openly coasted through classes, and are threatened with the loss of scholarships, financial assistance, and social opprobrium if they decide to pursue academia over sports. Which disproportionately affects black students because they're already disproportionately targeted for athletics.
posted by schroedinger at 10:54 AM on September 30, 2018 [10 favorites]


ArbitraryAndCapricious: But at my institution, you can glide through, racking up better-than-perfect grades, without ever getting the kind of relationships that allow you to go to grad school or even consider grad school as a possibility.

There's some irony in this story in that he would've been exactly that student - gliding through without being noticed by any of his professors - if it hadn't been for the football team's perfunctory check into whether he was doing okay academically.
posted by clawsoon at 10:58 AM on September 30, 2018 [2 favorites]


But if there were any honors or after-school programs did his teachers think of him? Was he pushed towards the more advanced math classes, and praised for his aptitude? Did he have teachers who told his mom in parent-teacher conferences that he had talent, who suggested extra study, who told him he should go to college and pursue those studies?
I mean, it truly sounds like he did. (I don't get the sense that there was any question of his not going to college. This is the son of a lawyer and a surgeon.) This MIT interview talks about his academic career in depth:
Right. I’m on scholarship and working very hard at football, but at the same time I’m taking classes toward an engineering degree. Because I was strong in math and physics in high school, my mother told me to major in engineering, but I found that my favorite classes were my math classes. My engineering classes were more focused on the “how,” whereas my math classes were more concerned with the “why.” I liked the structure and rigor of mathematics more than the practical focus of my engineering courses. So during the summer of my freshman year, I took a senior level math course in probability, just to get a feel for the major. I loved it and immediately became a math major.
It sounds like everyone knew from day one that he was really good at math. He had to find his way into an academic math career, but people were encouraging his math aptitude. And I think you'd have to have pretty strong math preparation to take a senior-level class in your first summer. I wouldn't be surprised if he came in with AP credit for Calc I and II.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 11:04 AM on September 30, 2018 [3 favorites]


The article gets at this a little but one challenge is the athletes' schedules! Even though they are allowed a certain number of absences, it is tough for them to take classes of their choice versus what is merely available. I've noticed in recent years that a lot of student athletes are gravitating to online classes where they aren't getting the attention they need.
posted by k8t at 12:09 PM on September 30, 2018 [4 favorites]


I love this story, and thanks for posting it. John Urschel is such an inspiring person, and I hope he is both very succesful in his own work, and succesful in inspiring young people. It's also good to see how he has had great mentors. They must be so proud.

It's sad that math has become such a second class activity in western schools. I mean, all societies knows they need math, but in most western countries, there are few dedicated math teachers and thus math talents are too rarely found or encouraged. All kids who are good at math that I know have a parent who is good at math. And even then it doesn't necessarily work. My youngest is good at math, but because she is dyslectic, she is bad at "school", and until recently she has never had a math teacher who could see beyond that.

Up till ninth grade, I was almost always lucky with my teachers, and loved both math and my math teachers. I got school awards and was moved to grades far above my age. But in our equivalent of high school, I met a not-mathematician math-teacher for the first time, and I stopped learning. I'm promising myself to get down to learning the stuff I didn't at school, and it may come to fruition soon. But that's just me. Millions of people who might have talent are not learning math because their teachers don't understand math.

(My personal path into all math is geometry. Everything that can be understood in spatial and/or visual representations, I can understand and work/calculate. So this is one big reason I am fascinated by Urschel. When I was a kid, my teachers got this and encouraged it. That high school teacher wanted everything to be abstract formulas. Luckily, at architecture school, the engineers engaged my instincts once more)
posted by mumimor at 4:09 PM on September 30, 2018 [1 favorite]


Before reading the article, I checked teh googles, and found that Whitney Young High School, my high school's math and academic decathlon rivals, which last made mention on the blue because they shut down the football team, now has an attempt at a football team which is still likely not to pan out this season, for lack of student interest.

The kids are paying attention, and walking away.
posted by ocschwar at 6:19 PM on September 30, 2018


One of my goals as an academic advisor is to get my strongest students to go to office hours and introduce themselves to their professors.

Just showing up is how I got my postgrad position. I wasn't even a particularly great student, but I was known to my advisor and just happened to be nearby when research openings became available. So yes, this is important work.
posted by scruss at 7:05 AM on October 1, 2018


In my highschool the math team was self financed and self organized. No monetary support from the schools, had to manage their own schedules, no forgiven absences or tardiness.

The sports kids had schools support for everything. Even the cheerleading support squad got travel stipends and forgiven absences.

The kids who stuck with the math program had family support of many kinds. I dropped out when I could not afford to travel to a competition.

One of my friends who stuck with it has a PhD and postdoc stuff, most of the others are in academia or have nice STEM careers.

Now I work with a bunch of young mathy people, a lot of autodidacts and just a couple of PhDs. The recurring story is how they were in the math team, made it to regionals or nationals, then dropped out from lack of support.

Most of them had no idea they could get scholarships and supports from the government, NGOs or private parties (there is a rich local guy who sponsors a few kids every year, has made it possible for some people I know to go to MIT and Stanford).

Unless you go to the right school or are born into the right family it is waaaay easier to figure out how to train and try for the football team than it is to figure out how to train and try out from a math scholarship.
posted by Dr. Curare at 2:17 PM on October 1, 2018 [2 favorites]


It happened that my first grad school acceptance letter arrived the same day as my boyfriend's dad came into town. (You find out you got in by email, and then a physical letter arrives. Or it did in 2008.) I still remember his dad reading the letter and that being the moment his dad actually believed funding for PhD programs existed. I can remember exactly where I had that conversation with my dad (who believed it a little more readily), down to which table we were sitting at in Starbucks. Of course, that meant that we each had to figure out for ourselves that funding was a thing and figure it out early enough that we were still on track to be competitive applicants.
posted by hoyland at 4:31 AM on October 3, 2018 [2 favorites]


« Older Don't wake me from this illusion   |   But we're neoclassicists, I guess, at heart Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments