After attending my first Talking Maths in Public conference last August, I was asked by the London Mathematical Society to write a few words about the experience…
“Talking Maths in Public was hands-down the BEST conference I have ever attended. The incredible skill, passion and experience of the attendees was second only to the welcoming and friendly atmosphere across the 3 days. From planning a ‘Maths Cabaret’ show, to the ‘Treasure Punt’ along the River Cam, I enjoyed every minute and cannot wait for the next edition in 2021!
For almost every session that I attended, I found something that I could take away to help to improve my ability to talk maths in public. However, the keynote given by magician Neil Kelso was particularly inspiring. The way in which he was able to control his audience through every little detail of his performance on stage was mesmerising to watch and hearing him break down these movements to explain exactly what role each one played within his show was fascinating. I will certainly be trying to use as many of his tips as possible in my next show!
If you’re thinking about whether maths communication might be for you, my advice is simple: just give it a go! As mathematicians, we are trained to focus on the details and to construct well-thought out and logical proofs, but unfortunately this approach can often be a barrier to trying something new and untested that perhaps feels outside of our comfort zone, like maths communication. My first YouTube video is awkward, its poorly shot and you can tell that I’m not very comfortable in front of a camera. But, fast forward 2 years and being on camera now feels natural, I know how to setup a shot correctly and editing is second nature. This wouldn’t have happened had I not jumped in head-first and just given it a go. No-one expects you to be perfect (or in fact even functional) on your first try, the most important thing to remember is that you learn from experience, so take that first step and hopefully in a few year’s time you can look back with fondness at that first video/performance/article and see just how far you’ve come.”
In October 2017, Dr Tom Crawford joined St Hugh’s as a Lecturer in Mathematics. He has since launched his own award-winning outreach programme via his website tomrocksmaths.com and in the process became a household name across Oxford University as the ‘Naked Mathematician’. Here, Tom looks back on the past year…
I arrived at St Hugh’s not really knowing what I was getting into to be completely honest. I’d left a stable and very enjoyable job as a science journalist working with the BBC, to take a leap into the unknown and go it alone in the world of maths communication and outreach. The plan was for the Lectureship at St Hugh’s to provide a monthly salary, whilst I attempted to do my best to make everyone love maths as much as I do. A fool’s errand perhaps to some, but one that I now realise I was born to do.
The ‘Naked Mathematician’ idea came out of my time with the Naked Scientists – a production company that specialises in broadcasting science news internationally via the radio and podcasts. The idea of the name was that we were stripping back science to the basics to make it easier to understand – much like Jamie Oliver and his ‘Naked Chef’ persona. Being predominantly a radio programme, it was relatively easy to leave the rest up to the listener’s imagination, but as I transitioned into video I realised that I could no longer hide behind suggestion and implication. If I was going to stick with the ‘Naked’ idea, it would have to be for real.
Fortunately, the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. Here I was, trying to take on the stereotype of maths as a boring, dreary, serious subject and I thought to myself ‘what’s the best way to make something less serious? Do it in your underwear of course!’ And so, the Naked Mathematician was born.
At the time of writing, the ‘Equations Stripped’ series has received over 100,000 views – that’s 100,000 people who have listened to some maths that they perhaps otherwise wouldn’t have, if it was presented in the usual lecture style. For me that’s a huge victory.
The key idea behind this project is that by allowing the audience to become a part of the process, they will hopefully feel more affinity to the subject, and ultimately take a greater interest in the video and the mathematical content that it contains. I’ve seen numerous examples of students sharing the vote with their friends to try to ensure that their question wins; or sharing the final video proud that they were the one who submitted the winning question. By generating passion, excitement and enthusiasm for the subject of maths, I hope to be able to improve its image in society, and I believe that small victories, such as a student sharing a maths-based post on social media, provide the first steps along the path towards achieving this goal.
Speaking of goals, I have to talk about ‘Maths v Sport’. It is by far the most popular of all of my talks, having featured this past year at the Cambridge Science Festival, the Oxford Maths Festival and the upcoming New Scientist Live event in September. It even resulted in me landing a role as the Daily Mirror’s ‘penalty kick expert’ when I was asked to analyse the England football team’s penalty shootout victory over Colombia in the last 16 of the World Cup! Most of the success of a penalty kick comes down to placement of the shot, with an 80% of a goal when aiming for the ‘unsaveable zone’, compared to only a 50% chance of success when aiming elsewhere.
In Maths v Sport I talk about three of my favourite sports – football, running and rowing – and the maths that we can use to analyse them. Can we predict where a free-kick will go before it’s taken? What is the fastest a human being can ever hope to run a marathon? Where is the best place in the world to attempt to break a rowing world record? Maths has all of the answers and some of them might just surprise you…
Another talk that has proved to be very popular is on the topic of ‘Ancient Greek Mathematicians’, which in true Tom Rocks Maths style involves a toga costume. The toga became infamous during the FameLab competition earlier this year, with my victory in the Oxford heats featured in the Oxford Mail. The competition requires scientists to explain a topic in their subject to an audience in a pub, in only 3 minutes. My thinking was that if I tell a pub full of punters that I’m going to talk about maths they won’t want to listen, but if I show up in a toga and start telling stories of deceit and murder from Ancient Greece then maybe I’ll keep their attention! This became the basis of the Ancient Greek Mathematicians talk where I discuss my favourite shapes, tell the story of a mathematician thrown overboard from a ship for being too clever, and explain what caused Archimedes to get so excited that he ran naked through the streets.
This summer has seen the expansion of the Tom Rocks Maths team with the addition of two undergraduate students as part of a summer research project in maths communication and outreach. St John’s undergraduate Kai Laddiman has been discussing machine learning and the problem of P vs NP using his background in computer science, while St Hugh’s maths and philosophy student Joe Double has been talking all things aliens whilst also telling us to play nice! Joe’s article in particular has proven to be real hit and was published by both Oxford Sparks and Science Oxford – well worth a read if you want to know how game theory can be used to help to reduce the problem of deforestation.
Looking forward to next year, I’m very excited to announce that the Funbers series with the BBC will be continuing. Now on its 25th episode, each week I take a look at a different number in more detail than anyone ever really should, to tell you everything you didn’t realise you’ve secretly always wanted to know about it. Highlights so far include Feigenbaum’s Constant and the fastest route into chaos, my favourite number ‘e’ and its link to finance, and the competition for the unluckiest number in the world between 8, 13 and 17.
The past year really has been quite the adventure and I can happily say I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. Everyone at St Hugh’s has been so welcoming and supportive of everything that I’m trying to do to make maths mainstream. I haven’t even mentioned my students who have been really fantastic and always happy to promote my work, and perhaps more importantly to tell me when things aren’t quite working!
The year ended with a really big surprise (at least to me) when I was selected as a joint-winner in the Outreach and Widening Participation category at the OxTALENT awards for my work with Tom Rocks Maths, and I can honestly say that such recognition would not have been possible without the support I have received from the college. I arrived at St Hugh’s not really knowing what to expect, and I can now say that I’ve found myself a family.