An inclusive vision of mathematics—its beauty, its humanity, and its power to build virtues that help us all flourish
For mathematician Francis Su, a society without mathematical affection is like a city without concerts, parks, or museums. To miss out on mathematics is to live without experiencing some of humanity’s most beautiful ideas.
In this profound book, written for a wide audience but especially for those disenchanted by their past experiences, an award‑winning mathematician and educator weaves parables, puzzles, and personal reflections to show how mathematics meets basic human desires—such as for play, beauty, freedom, justice, and love—and cultivates virtues essential for human flourishing. These desires and virtues, and the stories told here, reveal how mathematics is intimately tied to being human. Some lessons emerge from those who have struggled, including philosopher Simone Weil, whose own mathematical contributions were overshadowed by her brother’s, and Christopher Jackson, who discovered mathematics as an inmate in a federal prison. Christopher’s letters to the author appear throughout the book and show how this intellectual pursuit can—and must—be open to all.
About the Author
Francis Su is the Benediktsson‑Karwa Professor of Mathematics at Harvey Mudd College and the past president of the Mathematical Association of America. In 2013, he received the Haimo Award, a nationwide teaching prize for college math faculty, and in 2018 he won the Halmos-Ford writing award for the highly-acclaimed speech on which this book is based. His work has been featured in Quanta Magazine, Wired, and the New York Times.
“Inspiring.”—Scott McLemee, Inside Higher Ed
“The ancient Greeks argued that the best life was filled with beauty, truth, justice, play and love. The mathematician Francis Su knows just where to find them.”—Kevin Hartnett, Quanta Magazine
"Please read this beautiful, compelling, galvanizing book if you care about mathematics, social justice, or humanity, which I hope is everyone."—Eugenia Cheng, author of The Art of Logic in an Illogical World
"The world desperately needs this all‑embracing and deeply human perspective on what mathematics is and why it matters. The key qualities developed by mathematical thinking are characteristics that we should all value and long for."—Eddie Woo, author of It’s a Numberful World
ʺI was mesmerized by this unusual, sublime book. Original insights and engaging puzzles made me feel young again, discovering a way to Zen and the Art of Mathematics.ʺ—Nalini Joshi, University of Sydney
"Francis Su believes that math can make us better humans—and he leads by example. Every page is a work of generosity and compassion. Plus, the puzzles will haunt you for weeks."—Ben Orlin, author of Math with Bad Drawings
“A celebration of mathematics and the human spirit. Learning mathematics enriches our lives, and Su wants everyone to have a seat at the banquet.”—Edward Scheinerman, author of The Mathematics Lover’s Companion
"A delightful mixture of philosophy, mathematical illustrations, and compassion."—John Cook, Singular Value Consulting
"Francis Su has written a lyrical meditation on the beauty of mathematics and how it connects to our common humanity."—John Urschel, author of Mind and Matter: A Life in Math and Football
“Su elegantly uncovers the beauty and power of mathematics as they relate to our desires to be loved, trusted, and accepted. A powerful narrative of mathematical beauty, this book is the antidote for a mathematically fixed mindset.”—Talithia Williams, author of Power in Numbers: The Rebel Women of Mathematics
"This is perhaps the most important mathematics book of our time. Francis Su shows mathematics is an experience of the mind and, most important, of the heart.”—James Tanton, Global Math Project