A translation of an article about my work in Spanish newspaper La Razon. You can read the original article here.
Mathematics was, as for so many classmates with little numerical capacity, the coconut of my adolescence. In a twisting mortal with pedagogy, my teacher came to suspend me with a 4.9. I always stayed 0.1 to understand algebra and today I can’t survive without a calculator. I am not proud. I wonder if everything would have gone better with Tom Crawford. This Brit is a professor at Oxford, but he doesn’t wear a herringbone jacket or bottle-butt glasses nor is he older than the polka. Tom is an AC / DC math, the punk kid in the bunch. Unlike the old masters, he does not use the ruler as a throwing weapon but, at most, to measure the meters of cloth that is removed from each lesson. He is a “naked scientist”, not as a nod to precariousness but as a seduction pedagogical strategy. “I want to take the solemnity off the math, make it entertaining,” he says.
That goes through a “look” of a hangover rocker with a given shirt, sucks, piercing, tattoos and hair dye. He calls himself “Tom Rocks Maths.” His profiles on networks and his informative videos, in which he ends up posing in leopard-print briefs, have legions of followers. Will it be the solution to my problems? Be that as it may, Crawford was in Madrid yesterday, for the first time in Spain, to give a talk in his own way about mathematics applied to sport. The event took place at the Student Residence, where in 1923 another weird boy, with more clothes and more hair, Einstein, summed up his theory of relativity in an act presented and translated by Ortega and Gaset. The list of visits to that leading institution is as interesting as that of its well-known students: Lorca, Dalí, Buñuel …
The Residence has long become part of a memorial of what it was, but its teaching program continues far from the spotlight, without neglecting the field of science, which seems to have been overlapped when speaking of the Residence due to talent. creative of the boys of Letters already mentioned. Tom Crawford is the last visit and, although we may feel like a histrion or a secondary actor in “Trainspotting”, we must not forget that this is purely an eminence from Oxford.
A translation of my interview with Spanish newspaper ‘El Confidencial’ discussing my approach to presenting maths as the solution to everyday problems. The original interview (in Spanish) with Guillermo Cid can be found here.
This teacher knows how to shoot the perfect penalty: “The secret is in the numbers”
Doctor of applied mathematics Tom Crawford has spent years researching and demonstrating how numbers are much more than theory and can be key to our day to day
It is easily seen and is unquestionable. Tom Crawford is not a mathematician, and he knows it perfectly. His image is far and away from those ideas of the typical serious, boring, number-focused expert with squares in all his aspects of life, and it’s not a coincidence. This Englishman, a professor at Oxford University and a doctor from Cambridge University since 2016, is a loose verse in the sector and focuses all his work on proving it . For what? To teach everyone that mathematics is not just theory and paper and that it is present in all aspects of our lives.
With these ideas he has become a famous popularizer in his own country, participating in all kinds of radio programs from stations such as the BBC, and he even has a YouTube channel where he teaches mathematics in a different way. His stage name is Tom Rocks Maths and he is known as ‘the naked mathematician’ because he makes many of his videos without a shirt and even without pants.
This week Crawford is visiting Spain with an event at the Madrid Student Residence where he will talk about one of the aspects that has given him the most success, the relationship between sports and mathematics, and he has been talking with The Confidential on his entire career and, especially, on how the world of sports is intertwined with numbers.
Fan of soccer and of players like N’Golo Kanté or Roberto Firmino, assures that mathematics is leading the human being “to overcome his limits” and that it has been shown that they are a differential point in disciplines such as soccer, but without humans behind it nothing makes sense. “Mathematics is not magic, but a tool that we must know, understand and apply for our benefit.”
Q: Professor of mathematics at the University of Oxford, doctor of applied mathematics, popularizer … Why have you decided to give a talk on the relationship between mathematics and sport?
A: I love doing sports and following it, and I also love math, so I decided to join both fields. My favorite sports are soccer and running, and in those disciplines I focus research and talk. But well , the main thing is that they are very followed and practiced sports and that they have a clear relationship with the world of numbers. Talking about them, it is very easy to demonstrate how ‘mates’ are present in everything and are very relevant to our day to day. It removes the idea that it is only theoretical and that you learn almost by obligation.
Q: Today we have the cases of Eliud Kipchoge or some soccer teams that are clearly committed to technology and science, with mathematics very present, to improve their brands or achieve greater success. Do you think that there will be a limit in which these disciplines can no longer help us and the human being stops breaking records?
A: It is an interesting matter. For example, if we look at the evolution of athletic records in the last 20 years, we see a graph in which there is a constant and very steep drop in marks. Suddenly, in the early 2000s, disciplines such as mathematics began to come into play and the consequence was that records fell at a dizzying rate, also driven by improvements in training, in nutrition, in scientific research, in the professionalization of the industry … That yes, that occurs until a few years ago, and it is that this fall is stopping.
This, in my view, means that we are also reaching a new limit in progression. Come on, it is already difficult to continue breaking current records and you only have to see the case of Kipchoge and the two hours of the marathon. I do not know how far we can continue to improve, although mathematics could end up giving us a prediction, but I do believe that there will be a time when we will not be able to continue breaking more records. I do not know, it is impossible to think that a person can run 42 kilometers in an hour, for example, no matter how much scientific and technological knowledge is used.
Q: In football we see more and more teams and clubs that invest millions in ‘big data’ and other knowledge to improve their performance, is this key for a team as well as in athletics?
A: Yes, I think that investment in these areas can be key to improve a team, to study new players, to see the performance of the squad … Of course, without the intervention of a good human team this is useless . The thing is not only to have large volumes of data and good analysis programs, you need people who know how to interpret that information and can also analyze it and make decisions about what they find.
For me a perfect example is that of N’Golo Kanté. The player, who is now at Chelsea, arrived at Leicester City who ended up winning the English league from a French second division team. They signed him because he had stealing and intercepting statistics well above the average in his league, so much so that he made Leicester scouts look at him. But then the team employees had to go to see if he really was a good player, if he fulfilled what they were looking for, if he fit into his system and things went well. The data can give you clues or help you find the player that fits for a position, but then you must do a personal analysis and check what you are looking for. It is not something magical or perfect.
Another good example that demonstrates this is Roberto Firmino. He is a perfect player for the Liverpool system but that was not seen with the data, let’s say, more often like goals or assists, but with other types of records that are more covered but are very important. Who says what data we should look at is a human being who then uses mathematical tools to find just what he is looking for.
Q: In Spain now the use of ‘big data’ has become very fashionable in the sports environment, can a bubble be generated around all this following the case of ‘Moneyball’?
A: Obviously there is a danger and that is that without the correct human vision, without an analysis that makes sense of data and numbers and knows how to analyze them correctly, databases are only millions of numbers. You need a correct interpretation to give value to what you do, otherwise they are useless.
This type of knowledge is not something magical or perfect. They are super useful tools but without a human team that decides what information is important or how we should look at them, the investment will be useless.
Q: One of your most famous sports-related research talks about shooting the perfect penalty. How does mathematics say that you have to shoot that penalty?
A: Yes, the answer is in the numbers. Obviously there is no place that ensures 100% success, but there are two points in the goal that offer you up to 80%. Where are those points? Well, in the corners, as long as the goalkeeper is in the center of the goal.
Studying the speed of the shots and the capacity of the professional goalkeepers, it can be said that the goalkeeper has half a second to react and move from the moment the player shoots until the ball enters the goal. In that time the goalkeeper can move in an arc that does not occupy the entire goal but leaves the sides and especially the corners free, since it is impossible to physically get there from the center.
You have all that leftover area to mark with great security, but the most interesting thing for me is that if we create a circle between the corner that forms the squad and the semicircle that the goalkeeper can reach, we have the perfect point to shoot drawn on the center of that circle. A point as far from the goalkeeper as from the post as from the crossbar. If you are able to shoot at that point you will have thrown a perfect penalty. I think the measurements are something like 1.7 meters high and 0.65 meters measuring from the stick to the inside. Obviously nothing tells you to score because the goalkeeper can move or guess your intentions, but it is the safest place to score.
Q: Math is usually thought of as boring and difficult, and you try to turn this thinking around with this type of research and topic. Do you think that the idea about mathematics can change with these actions?
A: I think there is still a lot to do. It’s not so much that you don’t know what math is but that people don’t understand or are afraid of math. When you are with friends, you don’t hear anyone say let’s not talk about history because I don’t understand history, but you do hear about mathematics. That is what has to change. It can’t be cool to say that you don’t understand math or don’t like math.
But the worst thing is that many do not believe that mathematics is useful and relevant for life. They believe that everything is theory that stays in class and on paper, and that’s why I decided to change this idea by relating this knowledge to real life. Sport is a great example. People are closely related to sports, and even more so to soccer. If you can show people how numbers are being used or can be used in these fields, the message will come much more than simply talking about formulas or theories. Without going any further, we have already discussed the penalty case.
Q: And does ‘Mathematicians naked’ follow this idea?
A: Yes, well, normally people think mathematics is serious and boring, and almost by accident I thought that taking off my shirt and giving a different image could attract users. I created a YouTube channel to teach math and discovered that many people entered when they saw that there was a guy without a shirt in front of the camera. That was not the initial idea but this is how I have managed to get many people who are not related to mathematics to enter this world.
Many people remember math with bad experiences in class, exams and so on and my videos try to change this and leave at least one good experience to at least lose the fear of math and users see that not only are they not scary but they are very important to your life. In addition, in the videos they see that I have tattoos related to formulas and others and that in itself gives you an idea of something positive, ‘cool’.
Q: In Spain we have a paradox with mathematics because while many students do not like them, they have the highest grade to enter university because they have many job opportunities. Do you think that the ‘boom’ in mathematics in the workplace is good for people to get to know this world better?
A: As a mathematician, I think the more mathematicians there are, the better for everyone. There are many sectors where they are needed and the people who make this career are usually graduates who face problems very well, know how to find solutions and have the ability to analyze all kinds of situations. That is why I think that a ‘boom’ in this sector is good for all of society, but I understand that there may be a double reading for this.
If a lot of people get into a race just for work, they will end up being unhappy and have no passion to do their daily work. If the only motivation that leads you to study a career and dedicate yourself to a profession is that there is work, it is very likely that the bad days with cold, with a lot of work, with personal problems or little desire to work end up leaving everything.
I was recently interviewed by Lucia Taboada for La Redada Podcast about my love of maths and how it is used in today’s world to model everything from penalty kicks to the next TV series you watch on Netflix. The interview was translated into Spanish for the actual podcast so I’ve also included the original recording of my answers in English – enjoy!
On your YouTube channel, you present science in an entertaining way. Why is maths so unpopular sometimes, maybe students are afraid of maths?
How would you define the importance of mathematics in our life?
Tom, I’m a huge supporter of a Spanish team called Celta de Vigo. You explain the possibilities using maths to improve the performance of football players. How can Celta de Vigo use this to improve? (unfortunately, we are now in the last positions)
Penalty kicks are a science? Can you predict them?
Have you been hired by any football team?
Do you think football teams should hire math workers?
You are a tutor in St John’s College at the University of Oxford where you teach maths to the first and second year undergraduates. Oxford is a traditional university – how are your methods received there?
You have some maths tattoos on your body, thats right? Explain them to us?
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.
During my recent trip to Madrid to speak at the Residencia de Estudiantes, I was interviewed by national newspaper ‘El Mundo’ about my talk on the ‘Maths of Sport’ and my mission to popularise maths. The original interview can be found here.
Known as Tom Rocks Maths, the Oxford University scientist transforms boring formulas into fascinating models that he applies to sport to improve records and reduce errors.
MAR DE MIGUEL | Madrid
Football World Cup, 2018. 1-1 on the scoreboard. Spain plays its pass to the quarterfinals in the penalty round against Russia. Koke has failed one. Cheryshev is ready to throw. He scores. It’s up to Aspas. Expectation. Whistle. Launch and … Akinfeev stops it. We miss the game.
Could it have been avoided? The answer is Tom Crawford, l’ enfant terrible of numbers, a punkrocker in the court of mathematicians at the University of Oxford. And he explains it with a worn shirt, leather jacket, curled hair, piercing and tattoos. Because Crawford is not a common scientist. He is Tom Rocks Maths, an alternative researcher and communicator who transforms boring formulas into fascinating models that he applies to sports science, his second passion as a marathoner and a follower of Manchester United.
But, since all science is not exact, nor is Crawford a fortune teller, his predictions are based on data, taking into account all possible variables and, above all, on the highest probability of hitting. It is about getting ahead of the facts, of having all the necessary information to reduce errors and improve the records.
The mathematics of sport consist of “building models using data from the past to predict the future. When you don’t have them, you have to go to the field, contact the athletes and gather new information, ”explains Crawford in an interview with EL MUNDO after the talk he gave Tuesday in Madrid during the cycle of conferences ‘Mathematics in the Residence’, organized by ICMAT, the Student Residence and the Deputy Vice Presidency of Scientific Culture of the CSIC.
Win or lose penalties
The countries that best know how to throw penalties are Uruguay, Germany, Argentina and Brazil. Spain is not good, not bad. We are 50% among this list of experts and 50% of the worst, Mexico. We share media with France and Ireland. But how a team is better than another is not a matter of tradition or genetics, but numbers.
The first thing is to know how the players have responded before to the penalties, their statistics of failures and successes. According to Crawford, in the case of the 2018 World Cup, while Iniesta had four hits of five shots, Koke had zero of one and Aspas 16 of 17. The great surprise could have been given by Thiago, a substitute with a full in hits, four of four.
There is also a way to measure their stress responses with glasses that observe the movements of the eye. Footballers who are not immuted by pressure keep their eyes fixed and the most distracted move them. Knowing this in advance could decide the choice of a coach to choose the most focused players on those decisive penalties of a World Cup. “Football clubs now have entire teams of mathematicians and scientists who analyze all this data,” says Crawford.
But math doesn’t end there. In a goal you can make as many measures as your imagination, as Archimedes, to find the radius that indicates the exact area where you should place the ball without being stopped by the goalkeeper. It is called an insurmountable area and it depends, among other things, on the distance the goalkeeper moves in the shortest possible time from his position in the center. It looks like this: r2-2r(a+b+R)+a2+b2-R2. “These calculations are going to help you but they don’t guarantee that the penalty is perfect. In fact, the goalkeeper may also have trained against these formulas, ” Crawford alerts.
Roberto Carlos, the king of the Magnus effect
If penalties are a science, free kicks are not far behind. Defining its trajectory is one of Crawford’s favorite equations when the ball is given effect, as we have allways called it, which also has its scientific name: Magnus effect. “The ball that spins does not go in a straight line, because the rotation moves it to the side,” he said.
In this modality, for Crawford there is a master: Roberto Carlos, king of the Magnus effect in a match against France in 1997. It happened like this: he carefully placed the ball with his hands on the ground. He kicked. The ball passed over the barrier of players, turned in the air to the right, then to the left, hit a stick and entered as a stroke.
“I saw it when i was eight years old and I thought that it was impossible, that it was magic. But years later, using this equation to model Roberto Carlos’s shot, by entering the correct data (the speed of the ball, the distance to the door and the spin that applies to the ball) the formula accurately predicted that movement. It is still amazing. Although now I have an explanation that tells me that it did not break the barriers of physics.”
Marathon in less than two hours
In Tom Crawford’s mind there are not only favorite sport formulas but also graphics. And if there is one that drives him crazy it is the one that calculates, with a curve, when you will be able to run, with conventional methods, a marathon in less than 2 hours, something that it could happen between 2027 and 2035.
The record is owned by Kenyan Eliud Kipchoge, 2:01:39. He obtained it in Berlin in September 2018. In October of this year, the same athlete beat it at 1:59:40, but his feat was not accepted by the International Athletics Federation. “It has not been taken into account because they have broken the rules. As a new official mark, this record below two hours does not count, ”says Crawford.
How they did it? “Creating the perfect race,” says Crawford. And something else: a flat route in a straight line to go through the center of the track; a pair of shoes with carbon fiber that balances and saves 4% of energy; a tape on the leg with lumps (like golf balls) that create streams; a squad of escorts in V to cut the wind (called hares); a car that laser marks the ground so that these satellite corridors maintain the perfect position; a scanner that controls the muscle accumulation of carbohydrates and an enriched diet.
“Where you draw the line between what is due to the human element or an incredible shoe. What is the next? Putting rockets in our soles? ”Crawford wonders. We saw it in swimming a few years ago with high-tech swimsuits that reduce friction with water. They were even questioned for increasing buoyancy. With them, in some competitions 130 records were broken in just two years.
It is clear that mathematics helps to overcome tests and marks. However, in sports there are uncontrollable factors, such as the mental control of athletes, to disarm algorithms. “You can never add that factor to your models. You can never really predict a sport with total certainty. There are many unknown variables, ”reflects the English mathematician.
And, returning to the football game that we lost in 2018, would we have win if we knew the data in depth and having other players thrown the penalties that took us out of the World Cup? According to Crawford, we could have reduced the risk of losing, but this is something we will never know. What is highly certain is that their talks not only reinforce the devotion to sports, but also awake the mathematical vocation of the youngest students.
This week I had the honour of speaking at the Residencia de Estudiantes in Madrid, which has previously hosted Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Salvador Dali and Igor Stravinsky amongst many, many others.
Ahead of the event I was asked a few questions by the organisers, and here are my answers.
Without revealing all your talk: could you give us an idea about how maths can help to be better at sports?
From calculating the perfect placement of a penalty kick in football to maximise your chance of scoring, to identifying the best location on Earth to try to break a world record, maths can be used to help to improve our performance in almost any sport. The difficultly lies in writing down the correct equations, but once we have them, maths has the answers.
Can you tell us any real example of this maths application?
My favourite example is one that will be featured in my talk: if attempting to break a world record in rowing, the best place to do so is on the equator. This may seem counter-intuitive at first, but as I will explain, by changing the location to the equator you can increase performance by up to 8%, which for an elite athlete is an incredible boost!
In your opinion: what makes maths so useful in different sports context?
Maths can be applied to anything. This is one of the main reasons that I love the subject and travel the world championing its versatility. Given a situation in any sport, you can always use equations to describe what is happening. This might be how a tennis ball moves through the air, or the aerodynamics of a swimmer gliding through the water. Once you have the equations, maths allows you to solve them for the optimal solution, which can then be translated into improved performance by changing your technique appropriately.
You also explain that the mathematical results in sports may vary, how? In which way? What should athletes take into account?
The ideas discussed in my talk are aimed at professional athletes who are already performing at a very high level and therefore need to resort to other approaches to improve performance beyond increased practice. For amateur athletes, whilst the same ideas will still be applicable, they are much more likely to benefit from practice!
What is your personal experience with sports? Have you ever used “math tricks” for optimise your scores?
The idea for the talk came from wanting to combine my two main passions: mathematics and sport. I play football regularly and as the designated penalty taker for my team have ample opportunity to try to hit the mathematically calculated perfect position for a shot. I also run marathons where my knowledge of the history (and mathematically predicted future) of the world record helps me to appreciate my accomplishments in the event.
How did you become a math communicator?
My first taste of maths communication came during my undergraduate degree at Oxford, where I joined the maths outreach group “Marcus’ Marvellous Mathemagicians”. The group was named after Marcus du Sautoy and performed interactive talks and workshops on his behalf in schools across the UK. The next opportunity came during my PhD when I spent two months working with the “Naked Scientists” team in Cambridge to produce a weekly science radio programme for the BBC. I enjoyed the placement so much that I agreed to join the team full-time upon completion of my PhD. After one year of working in radio production, I began to realise that my true calling was in video, and “Tom Rocks Maths” was born.
How are outreach, teaching and research connected in your professional life?
As someone who came from a state school background and worked extremely hard to get to Oxford, I have always had a passion for outreach and the drive to make university accessible to all. My maths communication work is an extension of this, allowing me to not only to visit schools in deprived areas to try to inspire them to consider higher education, but also to encourage the general public to engage more with the subject of maths and to no longer be afraid of numbers.
The teaching role fits perfectly with maths communication as both roles require the ability to be able to explain difficult concepts in ways that can be understood by a given audience. For a public lecture, the mathematical ability of the audience is perhaps less than that of a class of undergraduates, but the need for clear communication remains the same. In this way, I find that each role complements the other perfectly, with many of the topics that my students find difficult providing inspiration for future video ideas.
What do you enjoy most in your outreach talks?
There is nothing I enjoy more than being able to present to a live audience. Whilst I enjoy all aspects of my outreach work – YouTube, television, radio, writing – nothing beats the thrill of speaking to a room full of people who want to hear what you have to say. The small interactions with each individual member of the audience, whether through eye contact or answering a question, remain with me long after the event and act as one of my main motivations to continue with my work.
You are not the speaker one might expect when thinking about a maths communicator, what kind of reactions have you find in this sense? Do you have any anecdote regarding this?
There are two ways of looking at this: first, the notion of a stereotypical mathematician is outdated and from my experience not representative of a large part of the demographic; and second, I hope that by putting myself forward as a public face of mathematics I can help others who may be thinking that they can’t be a mathematician just because of the way that they look.
In terms of anecdotes, I think it best that I point you in the direction of the comments on my YouTube videos…
In particular, what are the reactions with “Equations stripped”? How did you come up with the idea of this series?
The “Equations Stripped” is possibly my favourite of all of the things that I do because it helps to tackle the idea that maths should be serious. The concept of the videos came from thinking about this opinion and trying to come up with what I thought was the best way to present the subject as anything but serious. The result is me talking about maths in my underwear!
My role with the “Naked Scientists” also played a part, as the name would often lead to listeners (or even guests) suggesting that we should all be naked when recording the show, and of course being a radio programme no-one could prove or disprove the theory! I always thought that we should have had more fun with this concept, and when “Tom Rocks Maths” was launched Naked Maths seemed like the way to go!
Cast your mind back to the summer of 2018… we saw the warmest ever weather in the UK, Brexit was not yet a complete and utter disaster, and seemingly against all the odds the England football team reached the semi-finals of the World Cup for the first time since 1990. No doubt the team had a huge celebration together afterwards – but it wouldn’t be the first time that two of them have celebrated an occasion at the same time. As well as playing together at the heart of England’s defence, Manchester City duo Kyle Walker and John Stones also share the same birthday! Stones was born on 28th May 1994, making him 24 years old; Walker was born on the same day in 1990, meaning that he is exactly four years older than his teammate. How strange! Or is it…?
On the face of it, it seems quite surprising that in an England squad of just 23 players, two of them happen to share a birthday. However, as we’re about to see, this isn’t a freakish coincidence – maths says that it’s quite likely! What we’re talking about here is commonly known as the birthday problem: if there are a group of people of a certain size, what is the likelihood that at least two of them have the same birthday?
Let’s start by saying that we have a group of N people, and assume that birthdays are equally likely on every day of the year. (There is some evidence to suggest that this isn’t the case for top athletes; some say that they tend to be born early in the school year, such as around September in England. This is because they are slightly older than the other children in the year, and so they have a slight head-start in their physical development. However, we don’t want to make things too complicated, so we’ll ignore that for now.)
The easiest way to think about the problem is to first try to work out what the probability is that none of the N people share a birthday. Suppose our N people walk into a room, that is empty at first, one at a time. When the first person walks in, it’s obvious that they don’t share a birthday with anyone else in the room, because there isn’t anyone else. Therefore, they have the maximum probability of not sharing a birthday with anyone else in the room, which is 1.
Now think of the second person who walks in. The only way that they could share a birthday with someone in the room is if it happens to be exactly the same day as the first person. That means there is a 1 in 365 chance that they do share a birthday, so there is a 364 in 365 chance that they don’t.
Suppose that the first two birthdays don’t match, and then the third person walks in. They now have 2 days that they can’t share a birthday with, so there are 363 possible choices out of 365. Because we assumed that the first two didn’t match, we multiply the probabilities, so now the chance that none of them share a birthday is (364/365) * (363/365).
We can repeat this process until we get to our final person, number N. For example, the fourth person has 3 birthdays that they cannot share, so we multiply by a chance of 362/365; the fifth person has 4 days to avoid, so we include a probability of 361/365… By the time the Nth person walks in, there are N-1 people already in the room, so there are N-1 days that their birthday cannot fall on. This leaves them with 365-(N-1) possibilities out of 365.
To work out the total probability, we multiply all of these terms together which gives the likelihood that none of the N people share a birthday as
You might be thinking that this still looks like quite a big probability that none of them share a birthday, because all of the terms are very close to 1. But, if we try some values of N in a calculator, then it tells a very different story. (The percentages are calculated by finding the probability from the equation above and multiplying by 100.)
When N = 10, we get an 88% chance that none of them share a birthday. However, this drops down to 59% when there are N = 20 people. When we get to N = 23, the number of players in the England squad, the probability reaches just under 50%. That means that, incredibly, the likelihood that at least two of the 23 people share a birthday is just bigger than 50%!
So, in a random group of 23 people, it’s more likely than not that two of them share a birthday! This seems very strange at first; surely you’d need more than 23 people for a shared birthday to be more likely than not?! This is why the problem is commonly known as the birthday paradox – it might be very hard to get your head around, but the maths doesn’t lie!
Perhaps, in order to convince ourselves, we should look at some real-life examples. This is where the World Cup squads come into play: each team is restricted to bringing 23 players to the tournament. (We’ve seen that number before…) If our calculations above are correct, then if we picked any one of the World Cup squads, there would be roughly a 50:50 chance that at least two of the squad members share a birthday, which means that out of all of the squads that went to Russia, we would expect about half of them to have a birthday match. Well, let’s take a look…
Of the 32 teams, which were divided into 8 groups of 4, the following teams have at least one pair of players who share a birthday:
Iran, Morocco, Portugal, Spain
Australia, France, Peru
Brazil, Costa Rica
Germany, South Korea
So, not only is there at least one team in every group with a birthday match, but if we count the total, there are 16 squads with a shared birthday pair – exactly half of the teams! The experimental results have matched up with the mathematical theory to perfection. Hopefully that’s enough to convince you that our calculations were indeed sound!
A slightly different question that you might ask is as follows: if I am in a group with a certain number of people, what are the chances that at least one of them shares my birthday? Is it the same idea? What we have worked out above is the probability that any two people in the room share a birthday (or rather, we worked out the opposite, but we can find the right answer from our working). Note that the pair doesn’t necessarily include you; it’s a lot more likely that it’s some other pair in the group.
In order to work out the answer to this similar sounding question, we work the other way around again, by calculating the probability that none of the N people share my birthday. For each of the N people, there is only one birthday that they cannot have, and that is mine (14th November, in case you were wondering), which means there are 364 out of 365 possibilities for each person. We no longer care whether their birthdays match up; we only care if they match with mine. So each person has a 364/365 chance of not sharing my birthday; and the overall probability is just 364/365 * 364/365 * … * 364/365, N times, which we write as (364/365)N.
Once again, we can plug some values of N into a calculator: N = 10 gives a 97% chance that no-one else has my birthday. For N = 50 the probability is still very high: there is an 87% chance that none of these 50 people have the same birthday as me. N = 100 gives 76%; N = 200 gives 58%; you have to go all the way to N = 253 before the probability dips below 50%, and it becomes more likely than not that at least one person will celebrate their birthday with me.
Applying this idea to all 736 players (32 squads of 23 players) involved in the World Cup, we should expect around 3 of them to have been born on the same day as me – 14th November. And I am very happy to confirm that France’s Samuel Umtiti, Switzerland’s Roman Burki, and Belgium’s Thomas Vermaelen all have what is undoubtedly the best birthday of the year… Two similar problems with two very different solutions!
I was asked by the Daily Mirror to analyse the England football team’s penalty kicks against Colombia in the World Cup second round. You can find the key insights below and the full article online here.
Image: Dr Ken Bray, University of Bath
Harry Kane – Kane’s very calm and confident in his walk up to the penalty spot showing that he has prepared well mentally. He carefully places the ball and adjusts his socks before firing low and hard into the bottom left-hand corner of the net. The keeper goes the right way but it’s too accurate and right in the corner of the ‘unsaveable zone’.
Marcus Rashford – A different approach on the walk up as he keeps his head down to make sure he doesn’t give anything away to the Colombia keeper. He curves his run-up to add extra disguise to the shot and puts it in almost exactly the same place as Harry Kane. Again, the Colombia keeper goes the right way but it’s too fast, too accurate and right in the bottom corner of the ‘unsaveable zone’.
Jordan Henderson – The ‘kick-ups’ on the walk to the penalty area show he’s nervous and the look on his face also hints at a lack of confidence. The placement of the shot is actually very good as he hits the ‘unsaveable zone’ to the left of the keeper, but his shot is a little higher than the previous two making it a more comfortable height for the goalie, and his wide run-up gives the game away as he opens his body to go to the right. If you look closely you’ll see that Ospina moves before Henderson kicks the ball which is why he’s able to reach beyond the ‘diving envelope’ and make the save.
Kieran Trippier – He has his head down and a look of complete focus on his face as he approaches the penalty spot. After a little glance up to make sure he knows where he’s going, he buries it in the top left corner in the perfect spot. Comparing Trippier’s penalty to the fourth Colombian taker, Uribe, who missed, it’s the use of the inside of his foot that makes all of the difference. Despite them both aiming for the top corner of the ‘unsaveable zone’, Uribe leant back and went with his laces making it less controlled than Trippier’s side foot. It’s also interesting that England’s nominated set piece taker went fourth in the line-up. No doubt, because Gareth Southgate knew that the fourth penalty would be key to victory as one that goalkeepers are likely to save.
Eric Dier – Positionally, probably the worst of the five England penalties as it was the closest to the centre of the goal and the edge of the ‘diving envelope’ which is within reach of Ospina. The key aspect of Dier’s penalty that allowed him to score was the fact that it was along the ground. Ospina dives the correct way, but can’t reach close enough to his body to make the save. Compare this to Jordan Henderson’s penalty, which was much closer to the corner, but at a more comfortable height for the save.
4 of the 5 penalties went to the left of the goalkeeper and were all scored, whereas the one that went to the right of the keeper was saved.
All of England’s penalty takers were right-footed.
2 of the 5 penalty takers were substitutes, likely brought on to take a penalty in the shootout.
All of England’s penalties hit the ‘unsaveable zone’, maximising the chances of scoring. For Colombia only 2 of the 5 penalties hit the ‘unsaveable zone’.
Jordan Pickford saved the fifth and final penalty, demonstrating how it is more likely for a goalkeeper to make a save later in the shootout.
England benefitted from good preparation from the manager in selecting his line-up months in advance, aiming consistently for the ‘unsaveable zone’ which is the most difficult area for the goalkeeper to reach, and by preparing well mentally and taking their time with each shot. Ultimately, these 3 things were key to the victory.