Tom talks to Caitlin Painter, SciTech Editor at Palatinate – the student newspaper at Durham University. You can read the original article on Palatinate here.
“It seems like an interesting way to start your Oxford interview,” says Tom Crawford, explaining that candidates often begin proceedings by identifying themselves as huge fans of his YouTube channel.
Crawford regularly interviews applicants in his job as Early Career Teaching and Outreach Fellow at St Edmund Hall, but in addition to his role as an Oxford tutor, Crawford is a maths communicator with a channel, Tom Rocks Maths, with 100,000 subscribers.
His lifelong love of maths led him to study it at university, and then launched him into the world of science communication, where his entertaining and engaging videos on all things maths have over six million views.
“The whole odd mix of […] doing this extremely formal and potentially life-changing interview, and it starts with a discussion about YouTube videos. It’s quite a funny thing to think about.”
Crawford shouldn’t understate his YouTube videos. The breadth of maths they cover, whilst catering for non-maths audiences just as much as passionate mathematicians, is highly impressive. He has shaken up the world of maths communication, and the more videos he creates, the more inspiration he provides.
He tells me that people frequently comment on his videos that they hate maths. “For some reason, they’ve got this mindset that they do, but […] you’ve just watched some dude do maths for an hour! Clearly you would’ve just stopped watching if you actually hated it. So hopefully it’s slowly starting to change their opinions, which is ultimately what I’m trying to do.”
His channel includes a huge variety of videos, from his ‘Equations Stripped’ series, where he removes a layer of clothing each time he ‘strips back’ part of an equation, to videos giving help for GCSE maths exams.
More recently, Crawford has created content about the Oxford maths admissions process, through which he hopes to demystify the process. Featuring fellow YouTuber Mike Boyd, he provides tips on how to improve performance in both the admissions test and the interview.
These videos will be watched by many embarking on the admissions process, and Crawford hopes they will be beneficial to those from schools that provide less support with the process.
“They’re clearly very good mathematicians, but they just have no experience at all of explaining what they’re doing out loud in an interview setting.”
“It’s such a shame, because […] you can see the disparity between those students that have minimal support from their school — it’s not their school’s fault.”
Durham students, don’t worry — we didn’t spend the whole time talking about Oxford admissions. But in the wake of new statistics showing that Durham has the lowest state school intake of any UK university, it’s important to keep highlighting the disparity that exists between state and privately educated students, regardless of the university.
You can see the disparity between those students that have minimal support from their schoolTOM CRAWFORD
“At my school I had no idea how any of this worked,” Crawford says. That didn’t stop him from succeeding. He completed his degree at Oxford and followed it by a PhD in fluid dynamics at Cambridge.
As Crawford recounts his journey to starting a PhD, I can’t help but smile. His radiant passion for maths is infectious, making me, in the final year of a maths degree, wish I was immediately pursuing the subject further.
Crawford’s reason for studying maths has an uncanny resemblance to my own, and most other maths students I’ve met.
“I don’t ever remember having to think about what I was going to study […] It was just like, “Oh, I’m doing maths”, and there was not even a second thought about it.”
It’s a decision that, for Crawford and me, at least, never actually needs to be decided.
“It’s just always felt like it made the most sense to me out of all the subjects I’ve studied. Just patterns, numbers, equations. It’s kind of how my brain works, I think.”
The age-old panic of what to do after graduating is faced by finalists each year. In that position myself, I was curious to find out the career aspirations of a younger Crawford, given one of his current jobs is a maths communicator, which falls into the relatively niche world of science communication.
“If you’d asked 18-year-old me what I was going to do, there was the usual, ‘Oh, maybe I’ll go into banking and earn lots of money working in the city’.
“I remember learning about a position called an actuary. It’s often the career that’s thrown around people that are good at maths. I did an internship in the summer of my third year with some actuaries and I just really didn’t like it, it’s really boring.”
His life now certainly isn’t boring: “It’s cliché, but I actually couldn’t think of anything else I’d rather do. I just love making videos, doing talks and being able to pass on my enthusiasm for maths to others.
“I didn’t realise you could be mathematician, […] I only found out what a PhD was during my second year of uni. I initially had no clue because no one in my family had been to university.” It was during his PhD, however, that Crawford began questioning whether being a full-time researching mathematician was the route for him.
“For me it’s too niche. It’s too much focusing on one thing and doing the same thing for four years.” It seemed like his plan to get paid to do maths was evaporating, but fortunately, an opportunity arose at the BBC to make science radio with the Naked Scientists, one of the world’s most popular science shows.
His placement with the show was when everything switched for Crawford — “maybe my career lies in science communication!” Following this, he created the persona of the ‘Naked Mathematician’, and his YouTube channel was born.
In the four years since he created his channel, Crawford has amassed a huge video back catalogue. In addition to his videos giving exam help and stripping back maths’ most important equations, his channel features some of the most popular and noted names in maths. From speaking to science presenter Hannah Fry to interviewing Fields Medal winner Michael Atiyah, the work of Crawford is all about raising the profile of maths and the best mathematicians.
It’s cliché, but I couldn’t think of anything else I’d rather doTOM CRAWFORD
Part of his wider work promoting maths involves supporting the Protect Pure Maths campaign, set up in light of some UK universities reducing, or defunding altogether, their pure maths departments.
To put it briefly, pure maths is the branch of maths exploring what seems like very abstract ideas that have no practical use. Humans are curious by nature, and pure mathematicians often spend their whole lives researching topics they are simply curious about. In contrast, applied maths applies the techniques learnt from pure maths to real-life problems. In Crawford’s words, however, “it’s quite hard to draw the line between applied and pure [maths]”.
The defunding of pure maths within universities is in line with the lack of governmental support and funding for research within it. “I think it hints at this underlying […] trend that you’re seeing in science funding, in general, that everything should have an immediate impact.”
Crawford’s PhD was looking into where river water goes when it enters the ocean, and his research can be used to target which parts of the ocean we should focus on cleaning up to have the biggest environmental impact — an application of maths that has clear relevance to current global issues.
He was funded through the Research Council (“taxpayer money, technically”), and says that a lot of applied maths funding is industry-based, but has noticed that some of his students are struggling to find PhD research funding in pure areas.
“I think it’s incredibly damaging, because the applied maths stuff doesn’t work without the building blocks that come from pure maths […] and we’ll reach a point where applied mathematicians are stuck.
“You can’t immediately see [pure maths’] use, but [it] almost always becomes incredibly important.”
Crawford tells me his favourite example of this comes from looking at Einstein’s work on relativity. “Most people have heard of it, which shows just how far reaching it is as a theory. But for the first hundred years or so, it had no practical use.”
Then the development of GPS came along. If you get maps up on your phone, it would say “you’re in this six mile radius circle without the relativity correction [needed to correct for the speed the GPS satellites move at]”. This was only realised many years after Einstein’s initial discovery, and in the current climate of research needing an immediate impact, Crawford tells me that “it’s unlikely Einstein would have got funding for his work”.
Crawford’s digression into the work of Einstein felt like I was watching my own private YouTube video, with his enthusiasm unable to help but manifest itself into everything he says — the Protect Pure Maths campaign must be honoured to have his support.
As an applied mathematician who has come to understand the importance of pure maths throughout the course of my degree, I can certainly back Crawford and the entire team at the Protect Pure Maths campaign. Hopefully reading this means you also understand the huge value pure maths adds to society, and if you’re not yet convinced, check out Tom Rocks Maths on YouTube, where one of his videos will undoubtedly leave you reveling in the awe and importance of maths.