Mathematics for Human Flourishing

I read a lot of “popular math” books. I also wrote about some in past posts. But I’ve never read a book similar to Mathematics for Human Flourishing by Francis Su. I already knew the math presented in this book and almost all other topics covered. I even knew some of Su’s personal stories from his past writings. But somehow that did not matter. I got more out of this book than from many other books whose topics were completely new to me.

So what is this unusual book about? Quoting from the first paragraph:

… this is a book that grounds mathematics in what it means to be a human being and to live a more fully human life.

Different people are likely to describe the main topic of the book in different ways. One might be “How one can live a healthy and fulfilling life in mathematics.” Another might be “How to do good in the world through mathematics (and not by solving a millennium prize problem).” There are likely to be many other different descriptions. But hopefully you get a vague idea.

To emphasize his main ideas, Su includes several “subplots” that develop throughout the book. One subplot is Su’s relationship with Christopher Jackson. Jackson is serving a 32-year prison sentence for a string of armed robberies. While in prison, he started reading basic math books, gradually moving to more advanced topics (under Su’s guidance). The correspondence between Jackson and Su exposes a fascinating story of how one finds their place in the world through math.

Another subplot is Su’s personal life. Su shares highly personal stories. Some stories are about his struggles with math and others unrelated to math. At least once I was so shocked by what Su was sharing that I had to stop reading for a few minutes.

A large portion of the book describes the mathematical world to people who are unfamiliar with it. This starts with the basic step of explaining that math is not about plugging numbers into formulas. It develops all the way to advanced topics such as how mentoring works. Su does excellent work explaining these ideas to non-mathematicians, in a fun and clear way. When describing ideas such as searching for patterns, real mathematical examples are provided. I would definitely recommend this book to family and non-math friends who wish to know more about what I do.

I would also recommend this book to students. While discussing how the math world works, it raises various issues that cause anxiety and distance people away from math. When working with students, I am going to steal some sentences, such as

“A popular myth of doing math is that either you see the answer or you don’t. In reality, you demonstrate mathematical power by assembling possible strategies and trying them to see if they will work.”

Since I know how the math world works, the mathematics explained in the book, and even some of Su’s personal stories, how could I get much out of this book? It got me to think about what exactly I like in math and in my work. It helped me see more clearly what my future goals are. It got me to think about how to better handle various tricky interactions with students and mentees. And more. I cannot say that about many books.

If your goal is to learn more math, do not read this book. If you are cynical about topics such as getting students less anxious about math, do not read this book. Read it if you are a mathematician who wants to rethink your attitude towards math and teaching. Or to get others more excited about math. Read it if you are a student who might have some anxiety about math or just want to know more about the math world. Recommend it to non-mathematicians who want to know what you are doing with your life.

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