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MIT Reads: Mind and Matter: A Life in Math and Football: Home

About the Book

Official Book Synopsis Book cover with the book title Mind and Matter in white bold letters while the subtitle A life in Math and Football is in blue letters. Names of the author John Urschel and Louisa Thomas are also in white letters. The background of the cover is a blackboard with mathematical equations. John Urschel is a black male with dark hair and glasses who is standing in front of the blackboard leaning against a desk.

For John Urschel, what began as an insatiable appetite for puzzles as a child developed into mastery of the elegant systems and rules of mathematics. By the time he was thirteen, Urschel was auditing a college-level calculus course. But when he joined his high school football team, a new interest began to eclipse the thrill he felt in the classroom. Football challenged Urschel in an entirely different way, and he became addicted to the physical contact of the sport. After he accepted a scholarship to play at Penn State, his love of math was rekindled. As a Nittany Lion, he refused to sacrifice one passion for the other. Against the odds, Urschel found a way to manage his double life as a scholar and an athlete. While he was an offensive lineman for the Baltimore Ravens, he simultaneously pursued his PhD in mathematics at MIT.

Weaving together two separate narratives, Urschel relives for us the most pivotal moments of his bifurcated life. He explains why, after Penn State was sanctioned for the acts of former coach Jerry Sandusky, he declined offers from prestigious universities and refused to abandon his team. He describes his parents’ different influences and their profound effect on him, and he opens up about the correlation between football and CTE and the risks he took for the game he loves. Equally at home discussing Georg Cantor’s work on infinities and Bill Belichick’s playbook, Urschel reveals how each challenge—whether on the field or in the classroom—has brought him closer to understanding the two different halves of his own life, and how reason and emotion, the mind and the body, are always working together. “So often, people want to divide the world into two,” he observes. “Matter and energy. Wave and particle. Athlete and mathematician. Why can’t something (or someone) be both?” 

Borrow the book from the MIT Libraries here or click over book cover.

The Authors

Dr. John Urschel is a former offensive lineman for the Baltimore Ravens Black male wearing a dark long-sleeve shirt leaning against a blackboard. and an assistant professor in the MIT Math department. His research is focused on matrix analysis and numerical analysis, with an emphasis on theoretical results and provable guarantees for practical problems. Urschel earned his Ph.D. in Mathematics at MIT in 2021, under the guidance of Michael Goemas.  He has a bachelor’s and master’s degree in mathematics from Penn State, and in 2013, he won the Sullivan Award, given to “the most outstanding amateur athlete in the United States,” and the Campbell Trophy, awarded to the country’s top scholar-athlete in college football. 

The Authors

Louisa Thomas is a staff writer for the New Yorker.  White female with short brown hair and bangs. She is leaning towards the camera and is smiling. She is wearing a gray shirt.She is the author of Louisa: The Extraordinary Life of Mrs. Adams, a biography of the former First Lady Louisa Catherine Adams (1775-1852), and Conscience: Two Soldiers, Two Pacifists, One Family — A Test of Will and Faith in World War I, about her great-grandfather, Norman Thomas, and his three brothers. She is also the coauthor, with John Urschel, of Mind and Matter: A Life in Math and Football, and the co-editor, with Mary Pilon, of Losers: Dispatches from the Other Side of the Scoreboard. A former writer and editor for ESPN's Grantland, her writing has appeared in the New York TimesVogue, Racquet, several Best American Sports Writing anthologies, and other places.

Short Wave: This mathematician had another career: professional football player.

MIT Better World: I'm John Urschel, and I love math