“The book Mathematics for Human Flourishing presents mathematics as a discipline with the power to transform lives and speak to the very core of what it means to be human,” states the Mathematical Association of America (MAA), which awarded the 2021 Euler Book Prize to Francis Su, Benediktsson-Karwa Professor of Mathematics at Harvey Mudd College, and contributor Christopher Jackson. The two collaborators and friends will share the $2,000 prize.
The Euler Book Prize recognizes authors of outstanding books about mathematics that have a positive impact on the public’s view of the field. The prize honors Leonhard Euler, an 18th-century mathematician, as well as Virginia and Paul Halmos for establishing the award.
In Mathematics for Human Flourishing (Yale University Press), Su describes how mathematics meets basic human desires—such as play, beauty, freedom, justice and love—and cultivates virtues essential for human flourishing. “The book is a broad explanation for the general public about what math is, who it’s for and why anyone should learn it,” says Su, whose 2017 speech as retiring president of the Mathematical Association of America was the book’s inspiration.
Su’s personal narrative, scholarly perspectives and mathematical problems are enhanced by the writings of Jackson, whose own journey led him to discover the transformative power of mathematics from behind prison walls. Although mistakes as a teen landed Jackson in federal prison 14 years ago, the study of mathematics, politics and philosophy, among other subjects, helped him turn his life around. Within math, he has worked his way from algebra texts to calculus to linear algebra to topology, and his favorite area of math—analysis. He works in the education department at the Coleman federal prison in Florida and has helped over 50 inmates so far learn math to get their GEDs.
“Ideas, when deeply digested, can change perspectives and the actions that come with them,” Jackson remarks in a statement to the MAA. “I would like to thank Francis for listening to me and talking to me amongst other things, but especially for encouraging me to stick with and follow my ideas. In a lot of our correspondence and in some used for the book, I usually considered myself ‘rambling’ or saying something half insightful and half off the wall, but he always seemed to convince me otherwise.”
“As math educators, we would love for the public to see math differently, and yet we do little to change an educational system that rewards elitism and discourages those who don’t ﬁt a certain mold,” Su says in his MAA statement. “We’ve stripped away the human aspects of math from our evaluation of mathematical potential. Many have helped me see this, most especially my friend, Christopher Jackson. Discussing ideas with him has been a real joy, and I have learned so much by seeing math and life through his eyes. I am overjoyed to be sharing this award with Chris, whose story should inspire us all.”
In addition to teaching at Harvey Mudd College, Su is a former MAA president and currently serves as an American Mathematical Society vice-president. His research is in geometric combinatorics, and he has co-authored numerous papers with undergraduates. In 2013, he received the MAA Haimo Award for distinguished teaching of mathematics. He authors the popular Math Fun Facts website and is the creator of @mathfeed, a math news aggregator on Twitter. In addition to the Flourishing book—which Aleo Review of Books named 2020 book of the year—his recent projects include a linear algebra course for the Teaching Company and an IBL topology text with Michael Starbird.
The world’s largest community of mathematicians, students and enthusiasts, the MAA states, “If taken to heart, Mathematics for Human Flourishing will transform the reader’s conception of what it means to do mathematics, to apply mathematics and to ﬁnd mathematics beautiful.”