John Urschel Explains How Order & Chaos, Football & Math Coexist In Forum Lecture
Penn State graduate, former Baltimore Ravens offensive lineman, MIT doctoral candidate, and self-proclaimed professional mathlete John Urschel (phew) visited the Nittany Lion Inn Tuesday as part of the Penn State Forum lecture series.
As the featured speaker for February, Urschel discussed his twin careers as an aspiring mathematician and professional football player, but focused mainly on the “student” aspect of being a true student-athlete.
Dressed in a checkered blazer and standing in front of a screen with complex computations projected onto it, Urschel explained high-level math concepts like quantum mechanics and dynamical systems with charisma, wit, and in a simplified way that helped those in attendance understand its real-world significance.
A large part of Urschel’s lecture was told through the narrative of his own journey in mathematics. Urschel recalled an advanced course in real analysis that he took during his sophomore year of college with Professor Vadim Keloshin.
Keloshin challenged Urschel with demanding problems and puzzles from books like Jim Yorke’s Chaos: An Introduction to Dynamical Systems and Vladimir Arnold’s Mathematical Methods of Classical Mechanics. These challenges required extensive reading and planted seeds of a love for problem-solving within Penn State’s first ever winner of the William V. Campbell Trophy, better known as the “Academic Heisman.”
A research project with Keloshin and graduate students studying a theoretical asteroid between Jupiter and Mars resulted in Urschel’s work being published for the first time. It was then he realized he wanted to be a mathematician.
Urschel focused on the “chaos” that Yorke discussed in his book throughout his lecture, and how math makes sense of it…to a degree.
“The interplay between order and chaos is what makes both the physical world and human experience so amazing,” Urschel said. “Order is consistent, reliable, and gives a sense of certainty, but we’re still left with a sense of mundane uncertainty of how things will work out. Through chaos theory, we have the butterfly effect, which is when a butterfly flaps its wings in Brazil, and then a tornado forms in Texas, and Penn State loses to Ohio State. There is only so much you can predict.”
A unicorn of sorts, given his proficiency in two domains — football and math — as polar as order and chaos, Urschel used his opportunity to speak Tuesday to explain how he balanced his two passions and offer his thoughts on the balance between academics and athletics.
“Every morning when I woke up [during his NFL career], I was so excited to work on that math problem that I had stayed up late working on or to go to practice,” he said. “There were times when I would get in bed and think ‘John, if you go to sleep right now, you’ll be able to wake up that much sooner to finish that problem.’ It’s that sort of passion and desire that makes finding time to do it, that much easier.”
Urschel volunteers in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he now lives, to help local students identify those passions and consider their career options. One of his favorite ways to help students think about what they want to pursue is having them do a thought experiment with two options.
The first is being a professional football player for three seasons and making a total of $2 million but not having a college degree and therefore few job prospects after football. The second is going to school to become a doctor or lawyer and making $120,000 every year for decades.
“I give them 30 seconds to think about it, and somehow, all their hands raise for the second option,” he said. “You don’t even have to tell them the narrative of the chances of making it pro. You tell them that even if you make it, you’ll still need something to fall back on.”