Translation of my interview with Colombian newspaper ‘El Espectador’. The original version in Spanish can be found here.
Tom Crawford, with a doctorate from Oxford, uses everything he can think of in his classes and YouTube videos in order to make the mathematics lessons clear to young people.
The British Tom Crawford teaches Mathematics to first and second year students at the University of Oxford, the same one that gave him his doctorate. He also lectures, collaborates with media like the BBC and shares his videos with his thousands of followers under the name of Tom Rocks Maths. In some of his videos, such as those in the Equations Stripped series, he guts famous equations from physics and mathematics, for example, those of Navier-Stokes, at the same time as he takes off layers of clothing.
Last November 12, he visited Spain for the first time within the framework of Mathematics at the Residence, a cycle organized by the Institute of Mathematical Sciences (ICMAT), the Deputy Vice Presidency for Scientific Culture of the CSIC and the Student Residence. In his lecture, Sports Mathematics, he showed how mathematics helps improve marks and scores in various sports: soccer, long distance running and rowing.
With a foldable goal and statistical and geometric reasoning, Crawford explained, for example, what is the most appropriate way to shoot a penalty.
Is it true that mathematics allows to achieve better marks in sport?
Yes, math helps improve results in almost every sport, from figuring out the best way to score a penalty, to figuring out the best place to beat a world record. The main difficulty is to find the correct equations to help make the calculations, but once you have them, they are infallible, you just have to change your technique following the mathematical observations and you will improve your results. The points I make in my talk are more aimed at helping athletes who compete at a very high level and who need to optimize all possible variables. These ideas could also be applied at an amateur level, but undoubtedly greater results will be obtained with training.
Can you give a concrete example of applying mathematics to sports competition?
My favourite is this: Mathematics has shown that to beat the world record in rowing, the best place to do it is the equator. This may seem obvious, but it took a lot of calculations to get there. It has been verified, in fact, that there the marks of the athletes can improve up to 8%.
In your opinion, what makes mathematics so useful in sports?
Mathematics is very versatile and can appear in almost every context we can think of. Regardless of the situation and the sport, it is always possible to find an equation that describes what is happening, for example, how a tennis ball moves in the air or the aerodynamics of a swimmer sliding through the water.
Have you ever used these “math tricks” to improve your marks?
Yes, I usually play soccer and started using mathematics in this area when my team named me a penalty taker. I wanted to know which direction to fire the shots that gave me the best chance of scoring. I also run marathons, and having an understanding of what the world records have been and what the mathematics says will be next helps me improve my marks. I am a great sports fan and, in fact, the topic of my talk came up because I wanted to combine my two passions: mathematics and sports.
How did you start in the world of outreach?
It was while studying at Oxford. There was a group there called “Marcus’ Marvellous Mathemagicians”, in honor of the famous mathematician and popularizer Marcus du Sautoy, and I decided to join. We mainly taught interactive talks and workshops by schools across the UK. Later, during my PhD, I spent two months working with the Cambridge Naked Scientists team. We did a weekly science program on BBC radio and, as the name suggests, toyed with the idea that we could be naked while broadcasting the program. I enjoyed it so much that I agreed to work with them full time upon finishing my PhD. After a year, I realized that what I really liked was audiovisual, and then I created the character for “Tom Rocks Maths” and my YouTube channel.
On the subject of nudity, on your YouTube channel you have a series called Equations stripped, in which you take off your clothes while explaining the steps to follow to understand different equations, how did the idea of doing something like this arise?
This series is what I’m probably most proud of, because with it I manage to break with the idea that mathematics has to be serious, which was my main objective. I started to think about how to convey this notion and this is the result. It helped me a lot, of course, having worked with “Naked scientists” and, starting with “Tom Rocks Maths”, we also released “Naked Maths”. I have always believed that we should take more advantage of the concept of nudity.
What do you like most about outreach?
Without a doubt, having an audience in front of me. Although I really enjoy making videos, participating in radio and television programs or writing an article, there is nothing like the emotion I feel when speaking in front of a crowded space. Being able to make eye contact, small interactions or being able to answer a question is what motivates me to continue my work.
Why did you decide to pursue outreach?
I have always had a passion for outreach and making the university accessible to everyone, as I was educated at a state college and had to work hard to get into Oxford. Becoming a disseminator and communicator of mathematics allows me to visit schools in disadvantaged areas and also transmit to society that mathematics is not that bone subject that we have been led to believe.
Do you use outreach in your work as a mathematics teacher?
I think the two fields are very related because you need to develop the ability to make difficult concepts understood, communicate them in a clear way. At the same time, some of the difficulties my students encounter inspire me to make videos for my channel.
Does your physical appearance serve to dismantle stereotypes?
I think there are two ways of looking at this: the first, that the idea of the stereotype of the mathematician does not make sense today because it is not representative of a large part of the collective. The second is that I hope that showing myself as a public face of mathematics can help those who currently think they don’t fit in this world.
Of course, my image elicits all kinds of opinions, you just have to read the comments on my YouTube channel.