Francis Su’s “Mathematics on Human Flourishing”: How Math Builds Virtues and Makes Us Human

Hosted by the Math Department, Francis Su, Benediktsson-Karwa Professor of Mathematics at Harvey Mudd College, gave his presentation titled “Mathematics on Human Flourishing” on October 7. Su discussed his thoughts on the usefulness of mathematics and how, when used properly, it can be beneficial for everyone. 

Su began his presentation by displaying an 1886 painting, “Hope,” by George Frederic Watts, which depicted a lone, blindfolded woman overshadowed by a single star, sitting on a globe and straining to play a lyre that had a single string remaining. 

“Why do I open with this art? Well, it’s because we see it, and we seek to engage with it because we are all human beings and we have basic human desires. It’s beautiful and we desire beauty. It’s relevant to our current moment, and we desire meaning. It’s captivating. We desire to explore it. It causes us to wonder, to ask questions, to seek its truth, and to be willing to be patient for a single lone star to show itself. Why don’t we approach mathematics the same way that we approach art?” said Su. 

Despite Su’s current efforts to promote the subject, he struggled to understand its importance when he was a student. After a particular conversation with his professor, however, Su was forced to reflect on his own mathematical journey. 

“I had one professor who said that I didn’t have what it takes to be a successful mathematician. That unkind remark forced me to consider, why should I even do math? That’s the question I want all of us to consider tonight. Why is it that we do mathematics? When will I ever use this stuff? If you ask me, I would say this: because mathematics in its best forms should help people flourish. Mathematics is for human flourishing,” said Su. 

Su then went on to emphasize the difference between skills and virtues. He described skills as things one spends a lot of time doing in math, such as memorizing facts or formulas, whereas virtues are characteristics that are honed by the act of practicing mathematics, such as persistence in problem solving and creativity. 

“Virtues make your life richer. These are the things that you’ll carry with you the rest of your life, no matter what profession you go into, and no matter where your life takes you. This is what I mean by flourishing. So doing mathematics cultivates virtues that help people flourish, and the movement toward virtue happens. Math builds in us abilities to interpret, to quantify, to define. It’s to strategize, to generalize, to visualize,” said Su.

Several students who attended the presentation felt that Su brought up topics that are extremely important regarding mathematics and its applications to life. Eric Wang ’25, a competitive mathematician, elaborated on his takeaways from the lecture. 

“I think he summarizes an annoyance of mine, which is that math is viewed in terms of actual conceptual themes rather than what else you can take out of it. Almost like the way I would say sometimes in sports [what is] often emphasized, [is] how much or how fast can you run? But then oftentimes there are many other things you can gain from sports, such as teamwork or perseverance, and I think a lot of that can also be gained from math,” said Wang. 

Katerina Kokkotos ’25 commented on how listening to Su changed her perspective on mathematics. She believes that Su’s talk will help her take away more from her math class at Andover. 

“After his presentation, I thought about my own class and what I can take from it. Not just doing problems to finish it but how to think deeper and apply it to the world. I think I’ll probably be thinking about math in a different way, like a deeper understanding of what I’m doing. Not just to learn it but also [to] apply to my own life,” said Kokkotos. 

Reiterating the necessity to view mathematics as something more than simply using numbers and formulas, Su concluded his presentation with one final challenge. 

“If we can see math as being multidimensional, tied into what it means for us to be human beings, because you can’t separate the true practice of mathematics from what it means to be them. We all have basic human desires and math can meet these desires. So this is the challenge I’m going to leave all of you with: to believe that you, and everybody in your life, can flourish in mathematics. Believe in everybody,” said Su.