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Mind and Matter: A Life in Math and Football

John Urschel and Louisa Thomas
Penguin Press
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
[Reviewed by
Allen Stenger
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This is an engaging autobiography of John Urschel, a retired professional football player for the Baltimore Ravens who is now a math PhD student at MIT. He’s already published three math research papers. He clearly has unusual talents, and this book does a good job of bringing out those personal qualities that allowed him to use those talents.

He was fortunate in being born into a well-educated family. His mother started out as a nurse who earned a master’s degree in biomedical science, then gave up nursing to become a lawyer. His father was a top thoracic surgeon who then gave that up to study economics. He is African-American with roots in the US and in Canada. He was born in Winnipeg in 1991 and grew up in Buffalo, New York. His parents separated when he was three years old and he was raised by his mother, but his father kept in close contact with him. His mother loved reading, and their house was full of books of all sorts.

His mother decided he was not being taught well in public school and got him into a good private school. He then went to Penn State to play football, at the same time maintaining a 4.0 average and earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in math.

From childhood, Urschel has had an obsessive streak and worked extremely hard on whatever interested him. This, combined with his bright intellect and strong body, has allowed him to succeed at whatever he set his mind to. His mother continually pushed and challenged him. As a child, he worked obsessively on puzzles, board games, and math. In high school it was football. In college, he alternated between math and football. As a professional football player, he still worked obsessively on math, but he tried to keep that quiet since pros were supposed to be completely devoted to the game. However, he did enroll at MIT as a math Ph.D. student while still playing professionally and had some challenges juggling his schedule. He has now become obsessed with chess and is working to become a National Master. He’s very gregarious and easily makes friends and alliances, both in football and in math.

He had a bad concussion while playing professionally and this seems to have caused him to step back and think about brain injury and what was the best way to use his talents in life. He’s modest about his abilities, and realizes that at 6’3’’ and 315 pounds he’s still small by professional football standards. He retired from the Ravens after three seasons and is now working full-time on his Ph.D.

Urschel enjoys being a role model. He gives talks and makes public appearances in high schools and other places to promote math. He’s the subject of an AMS poster on the “real face of math”.

This is a quick read and easier to follow that a lot of math biographies. This is probably due to the contributions of his co-author (and wife), Louisa Thomas, who is a professional writer. The mathematical portions are handled very lightly. There’s little attempt to make this a popular math book. There are a few explanations of his work using analogies to everyday objects, but in most cases, the book states briefly in mathematical terms what his research has been about. Mathematicians will understand the references and everyone else can skip over them. His mathematical interests are varied but are in applied math and lean toward linear algebra and graph theory, with a lot of computer work thrown in.

We received an advanced reading copy of the book to review (it will be published in May 2019), but the production quality is already good. There’s no index; I hope they’ll add one in the final version.

Allen Stenger is a math hobbyist and retired software developer. He is an editor of the Missouri Journal of Mathematical Sciences. His personal web page is His mathematical interests are number theory and classical analysis. He studied math at Penn State but did not play football. His wife, Amy Rivers, is a professional writer.

The table of contents is not available.