Tom Crawford talks about how mathematics can help win a football league or the real ability of algorithms to manipulate people’s behaviour.
Tom Crawford (Warrington, United Kingdom, 1989) is presented as an atypical math teacher. He teaches mathematics to first and second year students at the University of Oxford (United Kingdom) and carries out an intense dissemination work in which he tries to approach a discipline that is not usually found among the favourites of young students.
In his attempt to popularise science, he does not hesitate to stay in his underpants , using the striptease as a metaphor for his work deepening the meaning of equations such as Navier-Stokes, unveiling them layer by layer, to make something affordable that can result in principle esoteric.
This week, Crawford visited the Student Residence, in Madrid, where, within the Mathematics in Residence cycle organised by the ICMAT, he offered the conference Mathematics of sport . In it, he uses sport as an example of a daily activity that can be better understood and practiced using mathematical equations.
Question. You undress or use sports to make mathematics impose less. Why is it necessary to show that mathematics is fun? I don’t see lawyers or judges, who also deal with very complex issues, trying to present the law as something fun.
Answer. I think it’s because people, for whatever reason, happily admit that they don’t like math, it’s socially acceptable. If you tell someone that you are a lawyer, their default answer is not going to be “I don’t like the law,” and that does happen with math. And it shouldn’t be like that. Everyone should have a basic understanding of math, but many people don’t have it. For me, that is why I want to emphasize that mathematics is fun and accessible. It doesn’t have to be something very hard or something that was taught badly in school.
Q. Do you think mathematics is taught especially badly in school, worse than other subjects?
A. Mathematics has a hard time competing with other subjects in the sense of teaching them through stories. When you learn something, if they can teach you through stories, it is something very powerful, which serves to catch people. And that is easier with literature or history.
A very simple example of how to add stories to mathematics would be trigonometry. The properties of the triangles you learn in high school. If you think about how these functions were discovered or invented, why we invented the sine, the cosine and the tangent, it was the ancient architects who tried to build buildings, churches, pyramids and created those intellectual tools. This is how trigonometry should be taught to me. Imagine they are in ancient Rome and you have to build a concrete building. How would you do it with the technologies available at that time? This prompts you to think about angles and distances and that is where trigonometry is useful and what it was invented for.
Q. A little more than a century ago, in a country like Spain, more than half of the population was illiterate. Do you think it would be possible and desirable to get a large majority of people to be able to handle basic mathematical tools?
A. It is completely possible and I would say that we are already doing it. It depends on what you consider a basic level of mathematics. Most people can, for example, looking at a clock know that the needles return to the same place every 12 hours, it is modular arithmetic, something you don’t study until you get to college. Even being able to calculate changes when they give you a ticket is to do mental arithmetic. Or calculate when you have to leave home if it takes 35 minutes to the station and the train leaves at 12.45. There are many things you do without thinking, but that involve mathematical calculations. So it depends on what you consider a desirable level of mathematics, but a large part of the population already has some capacity to use them.
“You can question whether trying to influence voters is good or bad”
Q. He also talks about the possibilities of mathematics to improve the performance of athletes. There is a movie like Money Ball , which talks about the experience of a baseball coach who uses mathematical analysis to lead a small team to compete against the big ones in the league with much less budget. Do you use math a lot in elite sport?
A. As far as I know, it is an important part of the scout systems of large teams. Today, these scouts, in addition to the classic analysis of a player’s performance, strengths and weaknesses, include teams of mathematicians and data scientists. As in Moneyball , your job is to analyse large amounts of data and detect marginal gains to take advantage of. That works well in baseball, because you have many controllable factors: The pitching of the pitcher, the batter, the race to the base. It is very formulable and they are repetitive behaviours. In football it is more difficult to find those marginal gains because it is less controllable.
The best example I can think of in football is Leicester City, which won the Premiere League in 2016. A big surprise. They had climbed to the first few years before and suddenly they win. In that victory, N’Golo Kanté was very important. He was the star of the season and won the player of the year award. He had been signed by a French second division team because the scout network had identified him among all the defensive midfielders in Europe at any level. As a defensive camper centre, one of your jobs is to stop the attacks of opponents. You can measure this in tickets, but one of the best ways to do this is through interceptions, which has to do with the player’s ability to read a game. It is something very difficult to assess with a number, quite subjective. But interceptions suggest that you are very often in the right place. And from that point of view, their number of interceptions was much higher statistically than the rest of midfielders. If the average of all midfielders in Europe is two, but most of the players are between 1.9 and 2.1 and Kanté is at 3, we see that it is an atypical case. It was not just a statistical analysis, because the human element is valued, but it was a factor to hire him.
Q. Can mathematics tell us what is the limit of human performance in sport? There have already been examples in the past, such as Roger Bannister’s, which went down four minutes on the mile when almost everyone said it was impossible, in which the predictions were completely wrong. Can these limits be accurately identified using mathematics?
R.If you look at the men’s marathon record during the last century, the marks descend, but not at a constant pace. You can estimate, for example, that every 10 years, 10 minutes are trimmed at the beginning, but then, in the 1940s and 1950s, the curve begins to flatten out and already in the 1990s it seems completely flat. So if we had sat here 30 years ago, when the record was around two hours and five minutes, we could have thought we would never run below two hours, because even if it keeps going down, the pace is getting slower. But in recent years, there has been much progress in long-distance races, such as new shoes that can provide 4% more energy. In addition, there is a professionalisation that allows you to train all day and not have a job besides running.
“I could predict with some confidence that the human limit for the marathon would be about an hour and 55 minutes”
So these are new factors that modify our calculations. In the future, in 30 years, new improvements may appear, but it is certain that we will not run a marathon in less than an hour. Given what has happened in the past, I think I could predict with some confidence that the human limit for the marathon would be about an hour and 55 minutes.
Q. Some people, when talking about the possibilities of mathematics to bring humans to the limit of perfection, may think that sports will become more boring, because there will be less and less space for the unexpected.
A. I think that also has to do with the human psychological trait that is nostalgia. But sport evolves and there is always a human factor. If the study allows you to perfect the place where it is better to throw a penalty, the goalkeepers can also work with that information. And then, there are some players who do not shoot at that supposedly perfect space, such as Eden Hazard, of Real Madrid, who when he threw the penalties for Chelsea waited until the last moment to decide where he threw it, a method that goes against what he says The mathematical model. In the end there are many variables in sports.
Q. Can mathematics help us better understand human groups? Does that technology have the potential to improve living together or to make it worse?
A. With all the data available, there are huge technology companies that can make profiles of people. Knowing that you are white, American, that you earn so much money and live in such a state, they can try to predict what you like or what you do and influence your vote in one direction. But this technology could also be used for good and you can also question whether trying to influence voters is good or bad. I think that ultimately we depend on the big companies that have control over these data so that they assume their moral responsibility and use the data well.
In any case, I think that most of the mathematicians working in this field would say that the idea of using mathematical data, algorithms and models to try to predict people’s behaviour is incredibly new and we don’t know exactly what we are doing. Algorithms may be a part of the decision making process, but not the only criteria for making a decision.
You can read the original article on El Pais here.