John Urschel Goes Pro

Jordan Ellenberg:

1. “Purposeful messiness”

John Urschel comes out of a rainy Cambridge night into the gleaming, very of-the-moment vegetarian restaurant where we’re meeting—his suggestion. He’s wearing a charcoal-gray sweater, his beard is perfectly groomed, there is not a drop of water on his glasses. He’s a very big guy but he doesn’t look as big as he is. He’s here to talk about math. He is exactly on time.

“Very rigorous, very structured,” Urschel tells me, when I ask him to describe his personal habits. “Nothing drives me crazy more than being late.”

At which point he pauses and rethinks. “I think I am messy,” he says. “But it’s a very purposeful messiness. My desk might be messy but everything’s where it’s supposed to be. I don’t like people messing with my mess.”

For those of you who don’t spend a lot of time around our tribe, Urschel is being an extremely typical mathematician here. This isn’t a matter of his work habits or his physical presentation. As far as those things go, there is no typical; the range of mathematicians is pretty much conterminous with the range of human beings. When I was starting out in math I wore John Lennon glasses and a lot of corduroy shorts. I know mathematicians who look and dress like Paris runway models, and mathematicians who look and dress like grindcore drummers, and mathematicians who look and dress like wind-battered sea captains. John Urschel looks and dresses like a successful pro athlete who has moved on to a string of high-profile media gigs, which, in part, he is.