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Speaker charts path from pro football to mathematician

Dave Gymburch
Staff writer
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Posted 8/2/19

When John Urschel was a child, football was “intrinsically cool” and what “people came together to watch,” while “no one in the grocery store talked about who won the Fields Medal” which …

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Speaker charts path from pro football to mathematician

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When John Urschel was a child, football was “intrinsically cool” and what “people came together to watch,” while “no one in the grocery store talked about who won the Fields Medal” which is “the highest award for mathematics.”

What Urschel wanted to do was “be a college football player,” which he accomplished very well as an offensive lineman at Penn State University followed by three years in the National Football League before retiring, but he also “knew I was good at math.” And, as he conveyed to an audience largely of student scholars Thursday night, it was in college where instructors “showed me all the problems I could solve with math...all the amazing things” that come out of “this beautiful amazing language.”

While math is “not as cool as...football,” Urschel said, “I’ve got news for you” and not only does math matter, “it’s important.” For example, “if mathematics isn’t for you...money probably isn’t either.” In addition, without the quantitative reasoning found in mathematics, people can be “more likely to be misled” such as with statistics.

A PhD candidate in mathematics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology who retired from the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens at age 26, Urschel detailed his passion for the “beauty of mathematics” as a keynote speaker at the fourth annual Project Fibonacci STEAM Leadership Conference for students.

The conference at The Beeches, which began Sunday and concludes this weekend, includes about 90 students of ages 15-20 from around the state taking part in various STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts
and math) workshops and
functions.

Urschel, a fifth-round NFL draft pick of the Ravens, played offensive line for the team from 2014-2016 and appeared in 40 games including starting 13 of them. His retirement from the NFL to fully pursue his PhD in mathematics has attracted national media coverage. But his focus Thursday was on mathematics as a “universal language of our world.”

Urschel spent Thursday with the Project Fibonacci scholar students, including in discussions and workshops. He told them Thursday night he was “happy to talk to you guys...hang out all day.” They are “the next generation of young thinkers” who can help solve problems and “might help us get to Mars.” Studying how to potentially live on Mars is a theme of this year’s Project Fibonacci conference.

“Our responsibilities as mathematicians” is to try to ‘teach you...try to bring you along,” Urschel told students. “It’s important to be able to take the knowledge...to be able to teach you guys” so they can help solve the world’s problems.

Urschel used a projection screen to show photos of himself as a child with his family while describing his early fascination with solving math-related puzzles. He also showed photos of mathematicians and of college instructors who later inspired him.

Additionally presented was a photo of University of Michigan football offensive lineman Jake Long who went on to play in the NFL and was “who I wanted to be when I grew up.”

But Urschel also explained how he further developed his interest in mathematics while at Penn State, including when he “wrote my first research paper” which resulted in “a feeling like no other.”

The topic was “Instabilities in the Sun-Jupiter-Asteroid three body problem.” He noted the “thrill of being able to” discover things and “understand this type of phenomenon using math” including understanding “properties of our solar system.”

At one point during his comments Thursday, Urschel used marker boards to outline questions about various mathematical premises and seek students’ input on how they would answer them. Among topics were certain categories of numbers and their relationships to infinity.

Urschel later responded to several questions from the audience, addressing such areas as math applications in the real world, his favorite math proofs which are arguments for mathematical statements, and math as a creation which has “everything to do with the universe we created this language to describe.”

Asked about struggles, Urschel said that as a mathematician “you have to get comfortable with failure” when dealing with “a problem no one’s solved before.” But he also emphasized the “fulfilling moment” when “you try something” and “that light bulb moment makes it all worthwhile...keeps you going as a mathematician.” Urschel stayed after for book signings and photo opportunities. He has written a book, “Mind and Matter: A Life in Math and Football,” with his wife Louisa Thomas, an author of prior books.

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