A couple days back I asked aloud who might I interview this year for the blog, and the first 2 emailers to suggest a name had the same one in mind: Francis Su. If you’ve followed news in math circles lately you understand why that name arose. Last Friday Su gave his ‘retirement’ address as outgoing MAA President to the Joint Math meetings in Atlanta, and it became one of the most linked-to pieces I’ve ever seen in the math blogosphere.
Deservedly so. The title was “Mathematics For Human Flourishing.” There are plenty of words many of us easily associate with mathematics, but “ human flourishing” may not be among the ones that come rapidly to mind.
“…if you asked me: why do mathematics? I would say: mathematics helps people flourish. Mathematics is for human flourishing…“What I hope to convince you of today is that the practice of mathematics cultivates virtues that help people flourish. These virtues serve you well no matter what profession you choose.”
And then he proceeded to flesh out five virtues: play, beauty, truth, justice, love. The first three of these are easy to imagine in connection to math, but “justice” may not quickly come to mind. Yet “justice” is actually the one he spent the most time on, and it is a very important read.
…Su, being Asian, falls into one of the stereotypes sometimes held for mathematicians, but his articulate, moving prose easily breaks him out of the oft-held, narrowly ‘nerdy’ stereotype.
The entire piece is wonderful, one tweeter calling it a 'pep talk, wake-up call, and call-to-action' all wrapped in one. MANY called it “inspiring,” and Fawn Nguyen, no stranger to powerful writing herself, deemed it “heartbreakingly beautiful.”
The very phrase, "Mathematics for human flourishing" is a beautiful conjunction of ideas in an often unflourishing world, so if you missed it, do read on:
Su is based at Harvey Mudd College, one of the Claremont Colleges, which are my old haunting grounds, and at some point I’ll try to rope him into an interview here.
[* above photo taken from Tim Chartier's Twitter feed... if someone else deserves credit(?) for it, let me know]