Imagine having the mind of Srinivasan Ramanujan, the athleticism of Jim Thorpe, the creativity of Albert Einstein, and diligence like no other.
One man embodies all of these traits—John Urschel, a former NFL football player for the Baltimore Ravens and a renowned mathematician.
Join me on a journey of beautiful lessons in this book review of Mind and Matter: A Life in Math and Football by John Urschel and Louisa Thomas.
*For this book review, I read Urschel’s book, watched a couple of interviews, and perused through a few of his math papers.
Table of Contents
- Mind and Matter Book Review, Quick Takeaways
- Quotes from Mind and Matter: 5 Life Lessons We Can Learn from John Urschel
- Read It or Skip It?
- Facts About John Urschel
- Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
Mind and Matter Book Review – Quick Takeaways
- Title: Mind and Matter: A Life in Math and Football
- Authors: John Urschel and Louisa Thomas
- Pages: 238
- Chapters: 28
- Publisher: Penguin Press, New York, 2019
Mind and Matter Summary
This book is a goldmine for people who like mathematics, college football, sports, and reading in general.
For the mathematician, there are mentions of John von Neumann, Pascal, Fermat, Heisenberg, Bernoulli, Schrodinger, Kolmogorov, Leibniz, Newton, Godel, G.H. Hardy, Einstein and brief dives into the topics of probability, dynamical systems, Markov Chains, physics, measure theory, gambling, game theory, linear algebra, numerical analysis, set theory, and logic. For the football fan, there are references to locker room talks, deep friendships, training drills, college football season, tryouts, the NFL draft, CTE, concussions, injuries, and more.
Urschel reflects on the constant internal push and pull between doing mathematics and playing football. We learn how he developed these interests and navigated both spheres of his life without losing proficiency in either one. He ended up playing at the highest level in NFL with the Baltimore Ravens and completed his PhD in mathematics from MIT, specializing in linear algebra, graph theory, and numerical analysis. We also learn about important events that occurred during his education like the Jerry Sandusky scandal and how it impacted the Penn State community.
Two aspects that I really enjoyed were how (1) the writing style matched (2) the content of the book. The book seamlessly alternates between football and mathematics at different stages of his life. For example, he talks about Concussion in one chapter and moves on to Heisenberg’s Uncertainty principle in the next. The length of each chapter ranges from 4-15 pages, making it an accessible read.
I definitely recommend Mind and Matter for all ages looking to pick up a short, fun, and inspirational book.Embed from Getty Images
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Quotes from “Mind and Matter: A Life in Math and Football”: 5 Life Lessons We Can Learn from John Urschel
Let’s start with a little back story. My family gifted me this book on my birthday.
In my undergraduate years studying mathematics, Urschel’s poster hung outside the math department. For four years, I walked by it, the image slowly getting ingrained in the deep echelons of my memory. I always smiled when I saw it but did not give it much deep thought.
However, over the years, I have often been conflicted and never really come to terms with balancing my own interests, whether that is as a mathematician, sports enthusiast, programmer, teacher, writer, or as a violinist.
I am glad to have finally received the opportunity to read this book, which breathed life into Urschel’s poster and provided me with some topics of reflection. The perfect gift.
In any case, here are a few quotes and life lessons that stuck with me from John Urschel’s life.
1. “So often, people want to divide the world into two. Matter and energy. Wave and particle. Athlete and mathematician. Why can’t something (or someone) be both?”
At some point in our childhood, we have all been asked the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
Humans are multi-dimensional creatures. Kids especially are innately curious and are fascinated by different sort of things like solving puzzles, running around, reading a book, etc.
But as we grow up, there is the societal narrative to pick a field, choose a profession, and sacrifice interests that will not result in monetary gain later on.
In a NFL Films interview, Urschel himself shuts this myth down perfectly, “Everyone makes me try to choose between football and math and who says I have to?”
Life Lesson 1: You can be a jack of many trades. You can be a master of one. Life is about choices and there really isn’t a right or wrong way. You can go the route of John Urschel, Justin Timberlake, Albert Einstein, Farhan Akhtar, Elon Musk or the way of Michael Phelps, Sachin Tendulkar, and John Nash. Be curious, be yourself. Why limit yourself to one sky when you can explore many galaxies?
2. “Nothing made me want to take that class more than being told that I couldn’t do it. That was my nature. If someone thought I wasn’t up for something, then I had to show them wrong.”
The only way to reach the peak is to overcome the struggle.
Stressing is bad, but struggling can be good.
Life Lesson 2: Challenges can be daunting, but they have the potential to mold you into the person you want to become. Take the extrinsic negative noise and convert it into positive intrinsic motivation. A ‘can do’ attitude is the way to go.
3. “I decided to stay. I did not know what would happen to the football team… But I loved Penn State, and I loved my teammates. I wasn’t going to walk away.”
I’ll jump directly into the life lesson on this one.
Life Lesson 3: Friendships and relationships are often the strongest bonds and the easiest ones to break. When someone close to you is in need, be there for them. Make time for your loved ones regardless of how busy you are. Send a quick text or give them a call.
4. “I wanted challenges. I liked the feeling of being tested—even if I disliked the tests we took at school.” Improvement did not always come easily. It took work. But there was nothing like realizing that what had seemed hard before now seemed easier, or that what I had done badly before I could now do well. Solving problems like the Einstein puzzle gave me satisfaction and clarity I rarely felt anywhere else. It gave me a sense of purpose. It gave me a sense of power.”
Similar to #2 but with a slight distinction.
Challenges are a common theme in Urschel’s journey, but here he stresses that these challenges came from within. Hence, overcoming them was more satisfying.
Life Lesson 4: If you do things that you enjoy, then even the greatest of challenges become child’s play.
5. “He was struck by the diligence and determination that brought to the work—or make me want to work even harder. ‘It is fascinating to see your progress and enthusiasm..'”
And finally, whatever you do, do it with a smile!
Life Lesson 5: Hardwork is good, but do you know what is even better? Hardwork plus enthusiasm. If you work with a smile, this will provide positive energy to those around you. A win-win situation.
Also, don’t forget to watch his football clips.Embed from Getty Images
Bonus: Relationship Between Math & Football by John Urschel
Here are a few quotes from John Urschel’s Path to Math & NFL film interviews that shed light into both of his topics of interest.
“Football helped my math career in a number of ways. In football, you’re constantly being challenged, every single day. You’re being knocked down and you have to get up, constantly fight back. Build this sense of resiliency. That has helped me in my math, the resiliency. Even when I try 99 things and I fail, I still try the 100th time. Stay curious.
“Math certainly defines football. Football is a game of numbers, and this governed by math. The physics going on, the forces, the momentums, the passes, the kicks, the catches, this is all mathematics….Every football player is just like a math formula in a way…My quantitative thinking is what helps me see what [the opposition does] and immediately know what I’m supposed to do.”
“The biggest similarity is intuition. In mathematics, intuition is a really strong thing that can help you. In football, you need instincts to make split second decisions.”
And finally, I am going to leave you with this one really cool fact: He wears #64 on the field, “a perfect square and perfect cube. A true mathematician’s number.”Embed from Getty Images
Final Thoughts: Read It or Skip It?
Definitely a must-read book for mathematicians, sports enthusiasts, and anyone who wishes to excel in two or more fields of their choice.
Urschel demonstrates that we can be both physically fit and mentally agile at the same time.
This book inspired me. Hope it inspires you as well.
Here is a link to Mind and Matter: Amazon.com: Mind and Matter: A Life in Math and Football: Urschel, John, Thomas, Louisa
Facts About John Urschel
Here are some facts about John Urschel.
Urschel was born on June 24, 1991 in Winnipeg, Canada.
John Urschel is 6 ft 3 and 300 lbs. Apart from being a mathematician and a football player, he also enjoys playing chess.
John Urschel Education & Academic Appointments
- Canisus High School
- B.S. Mathematics, Pennsylvania State University (2009-2012)
- M.A. Mathematics, Pennsylvania State University (2012-13)
- Ph.D. Mathematics, Massachusetts Institue of Technology (MIT) (2016-2021)
- Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton (2021-22)
- Harvard University, Junior Fellow (2022-23)
- Assistant Professor, Massachusetts Institue of Technology (MIT) (Present)
Urchel’s Sports Journey
John started his football career as a late bloomer in 9th grade and never looked back.
Baltimore Ravens John Urschel
He was picked as the 175th draft pick in the 2014 NFL draft and played till 2017 before he retired to pursue mathematics and finish his PhD full-time.
He has played as center, guard, and other positions (to cover for immediate injuries).Embed from Getty Images
Urschel’s Mathematical Journey
Urschel’s research areas span (pun definitely intended) linear algebra, numerical analysis, theoretical machine learning, and dynamical systems.
John Urschel’s Math Papers
Here are some of his contributions to the mathematical world:
- The Urschel-Zikatanov Theorem (Spectral Bisection of Graphs and Connectedness)
- Maximum Spread of Graphs and Bipartite Graphs
- Some New Results on the Maximum Growth Factor in Gaussian Elimination
- Multidimensional Scaling: Approximation and Complexity
- Learning Determinantal Point Processes with Moments and Cycles
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John Urschel – Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
John Urschel is famous for simultaneously pursuing professional careers in football and mathematics. He went to the highest level with the Baltimore Ravens in the NFL an became a professor of mathematics.
John Urschel’s contributions have been in spectral graph theory, linear algebra, and numerical analysis among others. The Spectral Bisection of Graphs and Connectedness is one of his searly significant mathematical contributions.
John Urschel retired because he wanted to focus on mathematics full-time and give time to his daughter and family. There was also an additional layer of concern with concussion he had suffered earlier.
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