Formación IB: The stereotype of the mathematician does not represent a large part of the collective

A translation of an article on Formación IB discussing Tom’s visit to the Residencia in Madrid. You can read the original version (in Spanish) here.

Laura Moreno Iraola

This professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford is also a YouTuber who, with the artistic name of Tom Rock Maths, guts equations while getting naked. He has been in Madrid to talk about how his discipline helps improve sports brands.

The British Tom Crawford teaches Mathematics to first and second year students at the University of Oxford, the same one that awarded him his doctorate. He also gives lectures, collaborates with media such as the BBC and shares his videos with thousands of his followers under the name Tom Rocks Maths. In some of his videos, such as the ones in the Equations Stripped series , he guts famous equations from physics and mathematics, for example, Navier-Stokes, while removing layers of clothing. 

On November 12, he visited Spain for the first time in the framework of Mathematics in the Residence, a cycle organized by the Institute of Mathematical Sciences (ICMAT), the Deputy Vice-Presidency of Scientific Culture of the CSIC and the Student Residence. In his lecture, The Mathematics of Sport , he showed how mathematics helps improve marks and scores in various sports: soccer, long-distance running, and rowing.

With a collapsible 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 you to achieve better marks in sport?

Yes, mathematics helps improve results in almost all sports, from establishing the ideal way to score a penalty, to figuring out the best place to break a world record. The main difficulty is finding the correct equations to help you do 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 that I comment on in my talk are more aimed at helping athletes who compete at a very high level and who need to optimize all possible variables. At an amateur level  these ideas could also be applied, but, without a doubt, greater results will be obtained with training.

Can you give a specific example of applying mathematics to sports competition?

My favorite is this: mathematics has shown that to break the world record in rowing, the best place to do it is the equator. It is something that may seem obvious, but to get there many calculations have been needed. In fact, it has been proven that athletes’ marks can improve up to 8% there.

In your opinion, what makes math so useful in sports?

Mathematics is very versatile and can appear in almost any context that comes to mind. 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 football and I started to use mathematics in this field when my team named me a penalty taker. I wanted to know which was the direction to make the shots that gave more probability of scoring. I also run marathons, and having an understanding of what the world records have been and what the math says will be next helps me improve my times. I am a big fan of sports and, in fact, the topic of my talk arose because I wanted to combine my two passions: mathematics and sports.

How did you start in the world of disclosure?

It was while studying for a degree at Oxford. There was a group there called “Marcus’ Marvelous Mathemagicians”, in honor of the famous mathematician and popularizer Marcus du Sautoy, and I decided to join. We mainly delivered interactive talks and workshops for schools across the UK. Later, during my Ph.D., I spent two months working with the Naked Scientists team of Cambridge. We did a weekly science show on BBC radio and, as the name suggests, we toyed with the idea that we could be naked while we broadcast the show. I enjoyed it so much that I agreed to work with them full time after finishing my Ph.D. After a year, I realized that what I really liked was audiovisuals and so I created the “Tom Rocks Maths” character and my YouTube channel.

Speaking 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 that come about?

This series is probably what I am 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 thinking 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 launched “Naked Maths”. I have always believed that we should get more out 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 space full of people. Being able to make eye contact, small interactions or being able to answer a question is what motivates me to continue with my work.

Why did you decide to dedicate yourself to disclosure?

I have always had a passion for outreach and making university accessible to all, as I was educated at a state school and had to work really hard to get into Oxford. Becoming a popularizer and communicator of mathematics allows me to visit schools in underprivileged areas and also convey to society that mathematics is not that bone subject that we have been led to believe.

Do you use disclosure in your work as a Mathematics teacher?

I believe that the two fields are closely related because you need to develop the ability to make difficult concepts understood, to 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 is that the idea of ​​a mathematician stereotype makes no sense today because it is not at all representative of a large part of the collective. The second is that I hope that showing myself as the public face of mathematics can help someone who currently thinks that he does not fit in this world.

Of course, my image raises all kinds of opinions, you just have to read the comments on my YouTube channel.

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