Maths and the Media

Arriving at St John’s in 2008 to begin my study of mathematics, I was certain that within 4 years I would be working in the city as an actuary or an investment banker. Whilst I loved my subject, I saw it as means to obtain a good degree that would set me up for a career in finance. I’m not sure I could have been more wrong…


My current journey began towards the end of my second year, where I found myself enjoying the course so much that I wanted to continue to do so for as long as possible. This led me to research PhD programmes in the UK and the US, and I was fortunate enough to be offered a place to study Applied Maths at the University of Cambridge in 2012. During my time at Oxford, I found myself straying further and further into the territory of applied maths, culminating in a fourth-year course in fluid mechanics – the study of how fluids such as water, air and ice move around. This ultimately led to my PhD topic at Cambridge: where does river water go when it enters the ocean? (If you’re interested to find out more I’ve written a series of articles here explaining my thesis in simple terms.)

As part of my PhD I conducted experiments, worked on equations and even took part in a research cruise to the Southern Ocean. It was on my return from 6 weeks at sea that I had my first taste of the media industry via a 2-month internship with the Naked Scientists. I would spend each day searching out the most interesting breaking science research, before arranging an interview with the author for BBC radio. It was great fun and I learnt so much in so many different fields that I was instantly hooked. Upon completion of my PhD I went to work with the Naked Scientists full time creating a series of maths videos looking at everything from beehives and surfing, to artwork and criminals. You can watch a short trailer for the Naked Maths series below.

My work with the BBC and the media in general ultimately led me to my current position as a Mathematics Tutor at three Oxford colleges: St John’s, St Hugh’s and St Edmund Hall. This may not sound like the media industry, but the flexibility of the position has allowed me to work on several projects, including launching my website and my YouTube channel @tomrocksmaths where I am currently running two ongoing series. In the first, Equations Stripped, I strip back the most important equations in maths layer-by-layer; and for the second series in partnership with the website I Love Mathematics, I answer the questions sent in and voted for by students and maths-enthusiasts across the world.

Alongside my online videos, I am also writing a book discussing the maths of Pokémon – Pokémaths – and have a weekly show with BBC radio called ‘Funbers’ where I tell you the fun facts about numbers that you didn’t realise you’ve secretly always wanted to know. I have also recently presented at conferences in the US and India and hold regular talks at schools and universities, including for the Oxford Invariants and the Maths in Action series at Warwick University where I faced my biggest audience yet of 1200.


Looking back at my time at St John’s, I never would have imagined a career in the media industry lay before me, but the skills, experience and relationships that I formed there have undoubtedly helped to guide me along this path. I think it just goes to show that Maths is possibly the most universal of all subjects and really can lead to a career in any industry.

You can follow Tom on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @tomrocksmaths for the latest updates.

JFM China Symposia: Hangzhou

I’m in China this week documenting the JFM Symposia ‘from fundamentals to applied fluid mechanics’ in the three cities of Shenzhen, Hangzhou and Beijing. Check out the CUP website for daily blog entries as well as some of my favourite video highlights from the scientific talks in Hangzhou below.

Detlef Lohse describes how a good scientist must be patient like a good bird-watcher as demonstrated by his experiments with exploding ice droplets

Hang Ding discusses falling droplets and shows a video of one hitting a mosquito

Quan Zhou presents some amazing visuals of Rayleigh-Taylor turbulence 

JFM China Symposia: Shenzhen

I’m in China this week documenting the JFM Symposia ‘from fundamentals to applied fluid mechanics’ in the three cities of Shenzhen, Hangzhou and Beijing. I’ll be writing daily blog entries on the CUP website as well as posting some of my favourite video highlights from the scientific talks, starting with the first symposium in Shenzhen.

Detlef Lohse explains the evaporation of a drop of Ouzo (a traditional Greek alcohol)

Colm Caulfield describes the two types of mixing present in the ocean (including a fantastic visualisation of KH instability)

Anderson Shum demonstrates how a fluid can behave as a ‘dancing ribbon’

Music Taste Linked to Brain Type

How does the way you think influence the music you choose to listen to? Scientists at Cambridge University have developed a test that marries up a person’s personality traits including how empathic they are, and how systematically they think, with the tunes most likely to resonate with them. I went to see the lead researcher David Greenberg to discover what the test revealed about my own musical tastes…

David – The measure of empathy is called the empathy quotient and it’s a sixty-item measure that asks about how you interact in your daily life and your care for others, how you perceive emotion and react to emotion and thoughts of others. Another dimension is called systemising and systemising is the drive to construct, analyse and look at the rules that govern different aspects of the world.

Tom on the empathy quotient you scored a 56, and the average male scores around 30 so you were slightly above average on empathising. On systemising you scored very high – so you’re score is a 95 and the average male usually scores a 68.

Tom – Okay so that makes sense I guess – I do maths, I do see patterns in things and so this is sort of reflecting how I would have thought my brain worked.

David – It’s not too surprising because previous research has shown that males tend to score higher than females on systemising. And mathematicians score higher on systemising than for example students who are studying humanities.

Tom – And then once you’ve worked out how someone thinks, how did you then try to find out their musical preferences – do you say to them perhaps ‘here’s a list of band names who’d you like’?

David – No, so that’s been done previously where participants would just list how much they like a genre, but the problem with genres is that they’re so vast. If you take the rock genre in general, you have heavy metal, punk and you have bands like Metallica. But also in the rock genre you have Jeff Buckley or Jodie Mitchell and so there’s a vast difference. So we thought a more accurate way of doing it could be to just administer pieces of music to the participants: have them listen and then to indicate how much they liked each piece of music.

Tom – And so what did you find then? Once these participants have done this questionnaire you’ve worked out how they think – how did this affect their music choices?

David – What we found quite consistently over several studies was that empathisers in terms of the style of music that they liked, they were preferring music that was mellow and was from R&B, adult contemporary and soft rock genres. Whereas, systemisers were preferring music that was more intense and that was from the punk and heavy metal genres.

Tom – So what do I like? What did you find out about me?

David – You scored for example with mellow music or unpretentious styles which is from the folk genres or music that’s from classical or jazz, you scored average on those preference dimensions. But you scored the highest on intense music – so musical extracts that were from the punk, heavy metal and hard rock genres those were your favourites by far.


Tom – That was my favourite one that I listened to yesterday! I feel like I’ve been the perfect test student here! We’ve just been discussing exactly what type of music a systemiser should like and we’re just looking at my results here and I’ve nailed it to be honest!

And are there any applications for this beyond just figuring out which music people should and shouldn’t like?

David – A lot of research and there’s volumes of it has shown that music can be effective in music therapies. So, for example in terms of social skills or emotion recognition, we could use these results as a way of say teaching emotion recognition to children through music.

Tom – Based on my test results, play me the song that I should absolutely hate – I should leave the room I should dislike it that much!


…Yeah not liking that! That’s just so depressing I’m just not buying it.

David – But that’s the great thing about this study: there’s really no right or wrong answer. It’s just that people like different things and you can actually say that music is a mirror of the self in a way, it’s a reflective of who we are. And that our musical choices are a link or an expression of our mind, our personalities and the way we interact with the world.

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

BBC Cambridgeshire Interview

Starting from my love of multiplication questions at primary school, I talk about my new role as a maths tutor at the University of Oxford, what a typical day looks like for the Naked Mathematician and give a sneak preview of my upcoming talk at New Scientist Live later this year… Live interview with BBC Radio Cambridgeshire.

Conservation in Botanic Gardens

When we hear the words ‘extinction’ and ‘endangered species’ we often think of animals, but in fact plants are just as threatened. A new study from the University of Cambridge has crunched the numbers and found that 41% of the world’s plants are preserved in botanic gardens with over 300 threatened species found in Cambridge alone. Curator Sam Brockington gave me a guided tour for BBC Radio Cambridgeshire…

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