The Tragic History of Mathematicians

The second puzzle in the new feature from Tom Rocks Maths – check out the question below and send your answers to me @tomrocksmaths on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or via the contact form on my website. The answer to the first puzzle can be found here.

Below are portraits of four famous mathematicians from history that have all died in tragic circumstances. Your task is to match up the mathematician with one of the following causes of death:

  • Shot in a duel
  • Pushed overboard from a ship
  • Suicide
  • Lost his mind

Bonus points for explaining the work of any of the mathematicians shown. Good luck!

WARNING: answer below image so scroll slowly to avoid revealing it accidentally.



a. Hippasus – Pushed overboard from a ship for his discovery and subsequent proof that the square root of 2 is an irrational number (cannot be written as a fraction).

b. Cantor – Lost his mind after discovering that there are more one type of infinity. For example the positive integers (whole numbers) are countably infinite, whilst the real numbers are uncountably infinite.

c. Boltzmann – Suicide. He is most famous for the development of statistical mechanics which explains how the properties of atoms determine the physical properties of matter.

d. Galois – Shot in a duel after being involved in a ‘love triangle’. Fortunately he wrote down all of his work/thoughts the night before which now forms the basis of Galois theory.

The Naked Science of a DNA test

I had my genes sequenced by 23andMe in the name of science… and of course I had to ask about the ‘maths’ behind the results.

Nowadays, a lot of companies offer online ancestry tests, or tests to quantify your risk of inheriting some life-changing diseases. But how seriously should we take their results? Izzie Clarke and Tom Crawford spoke to Garrett Hellenthal from UCL and Julianna Cintron from 23andMe in order to find out…

Tom – Fill the tube with saliva to the black wavy line… shall we just crack on?

Izzie – Okay! You get the idea. But in order for companies to analyse our genetic information, all we have to do is spit into a test tube and send it off to the lab. Tom sent his to a company called 23&Me to find out about his health and physical traits, and I wanted to explore my family history. So, how does a bit of my saliva reveal so much about my ancestry?

Garrett Hellenthal from University College London’s Genetics Institute…

  • Saliva contains your genetic code in a series of cells which can be extracted and identified via a series of genetic markers that define your unique DNA sequence.
  • They look at about 500,000 different pieces of genetic code and compare them to the codes of people in the company database to determine who you share matching DNA patterns with.
  • Izzie found out that she is 30% Irish, 24% Western European, 15% Great Britain and 15% Scandinavian.

Izzie – But what about health and physical appearance? Let’s take a look at Tom’s results…

Tom – I think most of them are correct for me like I should likely have lighter eyes, and I have blue eyes. It says likely little upper back hair, and I can fortunately report I have minimal upper back hair. I was also pleased to see that I’m likely not to have a bald spot; I really hope that one’s true.

Izzie – In addition to appearance, Tom’s test was able to look at specific parts of his genetic code and explain the likelihood of there being a change called a ‘variant’, which could possibly lead to a life-changing illness.

Julianna – My name is Julianna Cintron and I’m a produce specialist on the customer care team at 23andMe.

  • There are some traits that are more influenced by genes than others, for example if you have two copies of the gene associated with having red hair then you are much more likely to have red hair.

Tom – Just with you mentioning there this idea of it’s to do with the confidence in something, or there’s a probability. We’re using phrases like more likely, it’s not sort of fixed. In my result I was told that I have a particular variant which leads me to be at a higher risk of Alzheimer’s disease and I was just wondering what exactly does this mean? Does this mean I will get Alzheimer’s; does this just mean I’m above average likely; how does this result actually relate to the risk factor?

  • The e4 variant is known to impact your risk of developing Alzheimer’s and having one copy of the variant puts you at a slightly increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s by a certain age. Having two copies increases the risk further.
  • Most of the genetic risks are actually relatively small, much less than say smoking or unhealthy lifestyles in general.
  • The most important thing is to use the results as ‘one piece of the puzzle’ and not as a diagnosis that you will or will not get a certain disease.

You can listen to the full interview with the Naked Scientists here.

Tom Rocks Maths Episode 05

Tom Rocks Maths is back on Oxide radio with the usual eclectic mix of great maths and great music. This episode features the largest number in the world, Archimedes running naked through the streets of Ancient Greece and a conundrum involving apples… Plus music from Biffy Clyro, the Strokes and Alexisonfire.

How old is Homo naledi?

Back in September 2015, a new species of early human – Homo naledi – was announced to the world. The remains were found in the aptly named ‘Cradle of Humankind’ near Johannesburg, South Africa at the Rising Star cave system. Since their discovery they have changed the way that we think about human evolution. Now another chamber has been discovered containing yet more remains and analysis of the skeletons within has shed light on what Homo naledi looked like and where they fit into the timeline of evolution. I spoke to the lead researchers Lee Berger and John Hawks…

  • The new ‘Lesedi chamber’ is located 100 metres from the original and contains multiple partial skeletons which have been dated at 2 to 300,000 years old.
  • Homo naledi has human-like hands, wrists, feet, body size and teeth, but the rest of the body is primitive in nature, including the skull, trunk and the brain, which is about one third of the size of modern human brains.
  • It was originally thought that Homo naledi branched from human evolution around 2 million years ago, but the fact that the new skeletons seem to be much younger suggests that there was another lineage evolving in Africa at the same time as our Neanderthal ancestors.
  • The Rising Star cave system has up to 2 kilometres of passageways and the entrance to the Lesedi chamber was found branching off from the original Dinaledi chamber through a 25cm gap.
  • The Dinaledi chamber contains at least 15 individuals of all ages and the Lesedi chamber at least three individuals.
  • Homo naledi are believed to have been purposefully entering these caves up to 30 metres underground to ritually dispose of their dead.

You can listen to the full interview for the Naked Scientists here.

Blueprint Interview

Interview with the University of Oxford’s Blueprint magazine about my mission to popularise maths and my outreach work with the St John’s Inspire Programme. The full interview with Blueprint’s Shaunna Latchman can be found in the online magazine here.

While some avoid arithmetic at all costs, Tom fully immerses himself daily teaching maths to the first and second year undergraduate students at St Hugh’s College. He also arranges activities for St John’s College as the Access and Outreach Associate for Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) for the Inspire programme. Another activity is planning and filming content for his own outreach programme – Tom Rocks Maths.

‘It was the subject that felt most natural to me’, explains Tom, who first realised his love for numbers aged seven when his class had been set ten long multiplication questions. He raced through the whole book. However it wasn’t until he received ten A*s in his GCSEs that he began considering an Oxbridge education. ‘Academically there isn’t much of a difference [between Oxford and Cambridge]’ Tom comments, ‘but Oxford felt more like home.’

Later, after completing his PhD in Applied Maths at Cambridge, he was offered an internship with public engagement team, the Naked Scientists. The group strip back science to help make a complicated theory easy to digest. Weekly podcasts are broadcasted through BBC Radio 5 Live and ABC Australia, where audiences reach up to one million listeners a week.

Tom saw an opportunity to bring his appreciation for maths to the masses, but he wanted to do it with a twist. Eager to move away from the stereotypes of maths being a serious subject taught by older men in tweed jackets, he thought ‘what is the best way to make maths less serious? Doing it in my underwear!’ And so, the Naked Mathematician was born.

Since joining St Hugh’s, Tom continues to break down day-to-day activities on his YouTube channel to prove that maths is an integral part of everything we do.


His passion for engagement doesn’t end there. The Inspire programme, part of the Link Colleges initiative, is a series of events, visits, workshops and online contact for pupils in years 9 to 13. Tom works with the non-selective state schools in the London boroughs of Harrow and Ealing.

The Link Colleges programme simplifies communication between UK schools and the University. Every school in the country is linked with an Oxford college, with the hope that this connection will encourage students to explore the possibility of attending university.

‘The aim is to have sustained contact with the same group of students over five years,’ says Tom. ‘There are still students who haven’t thought about university, or maybe it’s not the norm in their family or area to attend university. So, we explain what it is, how it works and the positives and negatives. We want to inform and inspire them.’

Tom is responsible for arranging all STEM events across the year for 60 students in each year group. He calls on the expertise of his colleagues at Oxford as well as encouraging a partnership with the University of Cambridge and several universities in London. ‘The syllabus includes various topics such as the science of food and using maths to improve diet.’

During Tom’s famed Maths vs Sport talk, students are encouraged to participate in an on-stage penalty shootout – but only after learning about the mathematical makeup behind such a pivotal moment in a football game, of course.

Tom believes maths is made more accessible by relating it the world around us. He encourages his students to question things, like why bees make hexagonal shapes in their hives and how many Pikachus it takes to light up a lightbulb.

Whether visiting schools up and down the country to deliver talks, recording the weekly dose of Funbers for BBC radio – fun facts about numbers that we didn’t realise we secretly wanted to know – or in front of his class of students, Tom is certainly making waves in the world of maths.

Oxplore: Could we live on another planet?

Livestream debate with experts from the University of Oxford discussing the BIG question ‘Could we live on another planet?’ Featuring a meteorite from outer space, a holiday on Venus and my fantasy of owning a pet tiger…

Ancient Greek Mathematicians

A new feature from Tom Rocks Maths – a weekly maths puzzle for you all to enjoy! Answers will be posted when the next puzzle is released so remember to check back and get your thinking hats on…

Below are portraits of three famous mathematicians from Ancient Greece. Your task is to give me the name of each of them along with one of their mathematical discoveries… Send your answers in on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or via the contact form on my website. Good luck!

WARNING: answer below the picture so if you want to attempt the puzzle please scroll slowly to avoid revealing it!

Screen Shot 2018-05-16 at 11.52.18


(a). Archimedes – most famous for running naked down the street exclaiming “Eureka!” after discovering what is now called Archimedes Principle. It relates the buoyancy of an object to the weight of water and allows you to easily work out whether or not something will float.

(b). Plato – involved with many things, but mathematically best known for his interest in shapes. The 5 Platonic Solids bear his name and are also my favourite shapes. Plato thought that they were so beautiful the entire universe must be built out of them…

(c). Pythagoras – perhaps the most famous mathematician to have ever lived due the triangle theorem named after him that we are all taught at school. It tells us that the length of the diagonal side of a right-angled triangle c is related to the length of the other two sides a, b by a very neat relationship a2 + b2 = c2.

How can you show geometrically that 3 < π < 4?

Approximating Pi was a favourite pastime of many ancient mathematicians, none more so than Archimedes. Using his polygon approximation method we can get whole number bounds of 3 and 4 for the universal constant, with only high-school level geometry.

This is the latest question in the I Love Mathematics series where I answer the questions sent in and voted for by YOU. To vote for the next question that you want answered next remember to ‘like’ my Facebook page here.

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