Tom “rocks” maths on the internet – lecturer from Oxford arouses enthusiasm with crazy ideas…
The graduate mathematician Tom Crawford not only has rock music as a hobby, but he also looks like a rock star with his tattoos and piercings. However, some of his tattoos are related to mathematics. For example, the first 100 decimal places of Euler’s number wind around his arm and the number pi has been encrypted as an infinite series. On his Youtube channel “Tom Rocks Maths” he presents science in a fun way – the clothes sometimes fly during a striptease: “I want to show that maths is not always only downright serious, but fun.”
The math lecturer from Oxford came as part of the Heidelberg Laureate Forum (HLF) in the Electoral Palatinate. Since there is no Nobel Prize in mathematics, the winners (Latin: laureates) of comparable awards are invited to the HLF. The best math and computer scientists in the world meet here for a week with junior scientists and journalists. Crawford was on the ground as a publicist and presenter, and took the opportunity to speak to some of the awardees. For example, Martin Hairer, who received the Fields Medal for his seminal studies, had an appointment for an interview. In the end, they played Tetris for an hour and talked about “cool math”: “Such a relaxed and profound conversation is only possible at the Heidelberg Laureate Forum,” the Brit enthuses about the inspiring atmosphere at the HLF.
Tom Crawford was already “packed” in the elementary school of mathematics: “When we were learning multiplication, I did not want to stop working on difficult tasks until late in the evening – it did not feel like work at all.” Even later in high school, he always did math tasks first and gladly. “I was a good student in my eleven subjects, but math was the most fun.” The satisfying thing is, “in maths a result is right or wrong, there is no need to discuss it.”
After studying in Oxford, he went to Cambridge to write his PhD in fascinating fluid dynamics. “We wanted to model how fluids move and interact with the world. I was excited about the prospect of being able to analyse experiments as a mathematician.” From this, models of reality were developed: what path does a river take when it flows into the sea? The findings help to understand the pollution of the oceans and possibly stop it. During his PhD he worked for the BBC in the science programme “The Naked Scientists”: this meant that the scientists liberated their theories from the complicated “clothes” and reduced them to a comprehensible basis. In this way, a layman will discover “naked” facts – in the sense of comprehensible ones. The radio broadcasts were a great success.”But you also have to visualize maths,” so he started to make his own videos and took the concept of the “naked mathematician” literally. In some lectures, he reveals the equations “layer by layer” and in each stage falls a garment – until Tom remains only in his boxer shorts. And then his tattoos are also visible, on whose mathematical background he will give a lecture in Oxford soon – with many guests guaranteed!
With unusual ideas, the only 29-year-old mathematician arouses the desire and curiosity for his subject. His original internet activities have now been honoured with an innovation prize. Even when attending school in Schwetzingen Tom Crawford had unusual questions: “In the stomach of a blue whale 30 kilos of plastic have been found: How much would that be if a person swallows just as much in relation to their own body weight?” The students calculated that in the human stomach, six (empty) plastic shopping bags would be located. Or, “How many table tennis balls are needed to lift the sunken Titanic off the ground?” And which example impressed him most in mathematics? “It is terrific how Maxwell’s equations, which deal first with electricity and magnetism, follow the wave property of light with the help of mathematics alone. Math is just fantastic! ”
The original article published in the Die Rheinpfalz newspaper (in German) is available here.
New guidance, released by Pearson, says: If we want to tackle maths anxiety in Britain, we have to change the negative perceptions and experiences that so many learners have when it comes to maths. In this blog, Dr Tom Crawford, maths tutor at the University of Oxford, shares his take on the out-of-the-box approaches to help engage young people with the subject, spark curiosity and inspire life-long interest in maths.
Maths is boring, serious and irrelevant to everyday life – at least according to the results of my survey amongst friends, students and colleagues working in education. This isn’t necessarily something new, but it does highlight one of the current issues facing maths education: how do we improve its image amongst society in general?
With ‘Tom Rocks Maths’ my approach is simple: improve the image of maths by combatting each of the three issues identified above, and do it as creatively as possible…
Tackling “Maths is boring”
The misconception that maths is a boring subject often develops from maths lessons at school. Due to the extensive curriculum, teachers do not have the time to explore topics in detail, and in many cases, resort to providing a list of equations or formulae that need to be memorised for an exam.
My attempted solution is to do the hard work for them by creating curiosity-driven videos that explain mathematical concepts in exciting and original ways. Take the example of Archimedes Principle – a concept that explains why some objects are able to float whilst others sink – a key part of the secondary school curriculum. It’s perhaps not the most engaging topic for teenagers with no interest in weight regulations for maritime vehicles. But, if instead the topic were presented as part of a video answering the question ‘how many ping-pong balls would it take to raise the Titanic from the ocean floor?’ then maybe we can grab their attention.
Generating curiosity-driven questions such as these is not always easy, but the core concept is to present the topic as part of the answer to an interesting question that your audience simply has to know the answer to.
When teaching my second-year undergraduate students about Stokes’ Law for the terminal velocity of an object falling through a fluid, we discuss the question ‘how long would it take for Usain Bolt to sink to the bottom of the ocean?’ – something I think almost everyone wants to know the answer to! (Don’t worry you can watch the video to find out).
Tackling “Maths is irrelevant to everyday life”
Of all of the issues facing maths in society at the moment, this is perhaps the one that annoys me the most. The majority of people that I speak to who don’t like maths will tell me that it’s the ‘language of the universe’ and can be used to describe pretty much anything, but yet they almost always go on to say how they stopped trying to engage with it because it simply doesn’t apply to them. This is what we mathematicians call a contradiction.
To try to tackle this issue, I go out of my way to present as large a range of topics as possible from a mathematical viewpoint. This has seen me discuss the maths of dinosaurs, the maths of Pokémon and the maths of sport to name but a few. Throughout 2018, my weekly ‘Funbers’ series with BBC radio examined the ‘fun facts about numbers that you didn’t realise you’ve secretly always wanted to know’, where each week a new number would be discussed alongside an assortment of relevant facts from history, religion and popular culture. When working with the BBC, I was very insistent that the programmes were introduced as a ‘maths series’ to help listeners to make the connection between maths and everyday life.
Tackling “Maths is too serious”
At first this surprised me. I’d never personally thought of my subject as ‘serious’ and speaking to my friends and colleagues, they seemed equally perplexed. But then it hit me. Looking at maths and mathematicians from the outside, where you cannot understand the intricate details and beautiful patterns, calling the subject ‘serious’ is a very valid response. There are endless rules and regulations that must be followed for the work to make sense, and most people working in the field can come across as antisocial or introverted to an outsider, which is where I come in.
To try to show that maths isn’t as serious as many people believe, and just to have some plain old fun, I created my persona as the ‘Naked Mathematician’. This began with the ‘Equations Stripped’ video series on YouTube, where I strip-back some of the most important equations in maths layer by layer, whilst also removing an item of my clothing at each step until I remain in just my underwear. As well as providing an element of humour to the videos (as no mention is made of the increasing lack of clothing), the idea is that by doing maths in my underwear it shows that it does not have to be taken as seriously as many people believe.
I have also seen an added benefit of this approach in attracting a new audience that otherwise may not have had any interest in learning maths – from my perspective I really don’t care why people are engaging with the subject, so long as they have a good experience which they will now associate with mathematics.
Whilst I am aware that my approach to tackling the issues faced by mathematics in society may not be to everyone’s tastes, our current methods of trying to engage people with maths are not working, so isn’t it about time we tried thinking outside of the box?
The original article published by Pearson is available here.
Dr Tom Crawford joined the Hall in October 2018 as a Stipendiary Lecturer in Mathematics, but he is far from your usual mathematician…
Tom’s research investigates where river water goes when it enters the ocean. A simple question, you might first think, but the complexity of the interaction between the lighter freshwater and the heavier saltwater, mixed together by the tides and wind, and pushed ‘right’ along the coast due to the Earth’s rotation, is anything but. The motivation for understanding this process comes from recent attempts to clean-up our oceans. Rivers are the main source of pollution in the ocean, and therefore by understanding where freshwater ends up in the ocean, we can identify the area’s most susceptible to pollution and mitigate for its effects accordingly.
To better understand this process, Tom conducts experiments in the lab and has conducted fieldwork expeditions to places as far-flung as Antarctica. What the southern-most continent lacks in rivers, it makes up for in meltwater from its plethora of ice sheets. The ultimate process is the same – lighter freshwater being discharged into a heavier saltwater ocean – and as the most remote location on Earth the influence of humans is at its least.
If you thought that a mathematician performing experiments and taking part in fieldwork expeditions was unusual, then you haven’t seen anything yet. Tom is also very active in outreach and public engagement as the author of the award-winning website tomrocksmaths.com which looks to entertain, excite and educate about all thing’s maths. The key approach to Tom’s work is to make entertaining content that people want to engage with, without necessarily having an active interest in maths. Questions such as ‘how many ping-pong balls would it take to raise the Titanic from the ocean floor?’ and ‘what is the blast radius of an atomic bomb?’ peak your attention and curiosity meaning you have no choice but to click to find out the answer!
Tom is also the creator of the ‘Funbers’ series which was broadcast on BBC Radio throughout 2018 telling you the ‘fun facts you didn’t realise you’ve secretly always wanted to know’ about a different number every week. From the beauty of the ‘Golden Ratio’ to the world’s unluckiest number (is it really 13?) via the murderous tale of ‘Pythagoras’ Constant’, Funbers is a source of endless entertainment for all ages and mathematical abilities alike.
And now for the big finale. If you are familiar with Tom’s work, you may know where we are heading with this, but if not, strap yourself in for the big reveal. Dr Tom Crawford is the man behind the ‘Naked Mathematician’ (yes you did read that correctly). To try to show that maths isn’t as serious as many people believe, to try to engage a new audience with the subject, and just to have fun, Tom regularly gives maths talks in his underwear! His ‘Equations Stripped’ series on YouTube has reached 250,000 views – that’s a quarter of a million people that have engaged with maths that may otherwise have never done so. His recent tour of UK universities saw several thousand students come to a maths lecture of their own accord to learn about fluid dynamics. It may not be to everyone’s tastes, but our current methods of trying to engage people with maths are failing, so why not try something new? This is maths, but not as you know it.
As a new member of the BIG STEM Communicators Network I was very pleased to be featured in the member spotlight for spring 2019. (The original article is ‘members only’ so I’ve copied the text below.)
“As a new member of the BIG community I would like to introduce myself as the ‘Naked Mathematician’ (yes you did read that correctly). I am a Maths Tutor at the University of Oxford with a goal to reduce fear and anxiety towards maths. One of the ways in which I do this is to take my clothes off – what better way to emphasise that the subject is not as serious and intimidating as many people think than by teaching in my underwear! The concept began as a series of videos on my YouTube channel entitled ‘Equations Stripped’ where I strip back some of the most famous equations in maths (and myself) layer-by-layer so that everyone can understand, and has since evolved into a live performance now touring universities across the UK. My efforts to bring maths to a new audience have been recognised by the University of Oxford, where I was awarded first prize in the Outreach and Widening Participation category at the OxTALENT awards, and I have also been shortlisted for the Institute of Physics Early Career Communicator award.
The ‘Naked Mathematician’ is of course not appropriate for every audience and as such is only a small part of the work that I do to share my love of maths. My ‘Funbers’ series was broadcast throughout 2018 on BBC Radio, where in each episode I look at numbers more closely than anyone really should to bring you the fun facts that you didn’t realise you’ve secretly always wanted to know… I also try to involve my audience in the creative process as much as possible by issuing a call for questions on social media and then hosting a vote to decide the topic of my next video in the ‘I Love Mathematics’ video series. Finally, I combine my love of sport with maths in my popular ‘Maths v Sport’ talk which features a live penalty shootout on stage and an attempt to break a running world record (appropriately scaled of course!).
All of the material that I produce is available for free on my website tomrocksmaths.com and associated social media profiles @tomrocksmaths on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube. I am very excited to have joined BIG and look forward to working with the community to help to share STEM subjects with the world!”
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.
Tom Rocks Maths is back on Oxide – Oxford University’s student radio station – for a second season. The old favourites return with the weekly puzzle, Funbers and Equations Stripped. Plus, the new Millennium Problems segment where I tell you everything that you need to know about the seven greatest unsolved problems in the world of maths, each worth a cool $1 million. And not to forget the usual selection of awesome music from artists such as Rise Against, Panic at the Disco, Thirty Seconds to Mars – and for one week only – Taylor Swift. This is maths, but not as you know it…
I was interviewed by Autumn Neagle at Science Oxford about my toga-clad exploits in FameLab and the meaning of my maths-based tattoos… You can read the full article here.
What did you enjoy most about the FameLab experience?
“I’d been aware of FameLab for a few years, but I’d never entered because I thought that you had to talk about your own research – and with mine being lab-based I didn’t think it would translate very well to the live element of the show. But, once I found out that I could talk about anything within the subject of maths then it was a whole different ball game and I just had to give it a go. I think my favourite part was actually coming up with the talks themselves, just sitting down and brainstorming the ideas was such a fun process.”
What did you learn about yourself?
“The main takeaway for me was the importance of keeping to time. I knew beforehand that I was not the best at ‘following the rules’ and I think that both of my FameLab talks really demonstrated that as I never actually managed to get to the end of my talk! This was despite practicing several times beforehand and coming in sometimes up to 30 seconds short of the 3-minute limit – I think once I’m on stage I get carried away and just don’t want to come off!”
What about post-FameLab – how has taking part made a difference?
“Well, I certainly now appreciate the comfort and flexibility of wearing a toga that’s for sure! But on a more serious note, I think the experience of being on stage in front of a live audience really is invaluable when it comes to ‘performing maths’ – and I say ‘performing’ because that’s now how I see it. Before I would be giving a lecture or a talk about maths, but now it’s a full-on choreographed performance, and I think taking part in FameLab really helped me to understand that.
Any tips for future contestants?
“It has to be the time thing doesn’t it! I think everyone knows to practice beforehand to ensure they can get all of the material across in the 3-minutes, but for me that wasn’t enough. I’d suggest doing the actual performance in front of a group of friends or colleagues because – if they’re anything like me – then the adrenaline rush of being on stage changes even the best rehearsed routines and you can only get that from the live audience experience.”
What are you up to now/next?
“I’ve actually just received an award from the University of Oxford for my outreach work which is of course fantastic but also completely unexpected! I really do just love talking to people about maths and getting everyone to love it as much as I do, so the plan is very much to keep Tom Rocks Maths going and to hopefully expand into television… I have a few things in the pipeline so watch this space.”
Are all of your tattoos science inspired and if so what’s next?
“Now that I’ve reached the dizzy heights of 32 tattoos I can’t say that they are all based on science or maths, but it’s definitely still one of the dominant themes. So far I’ve got my favourite equation – Navier-Stokes, my favourite shapes – the Platonic Solids, and my favourite number – e. Next, I’m thinking of something related to the Normal Distribution – it’s such a powerful tool and the symmetry of the equation and the graph is beautiful – but I’ve yet to figure out exactly what that’s going to look like. If anyone has any suggestions though do let me know! @tomrocksmaths on social media – perhaps we can even turn it into a competition: pick Tom’s next tattoo, what do you think?”
In your YouTube video’s #EquationsStripped you reveal the maths behind some of the most important equations in maths, and I noticed that you describe the Navier-Stokes equations as your favourite – why is that and perhaps most importantly can you solve them?
“My favourite equations are the Navier-Stokes equations, which model the flow of every fluid on Earth… Can I solve them? Not a chance! They’re incredibly complicated, which is exactly why they’re a Millennium Problem with a million-dollar prize, and my idea with the video and live talk is to try to peel back the layers of complexity and explain what’s going on in as simple terms as possible.”
Does that mean that anyone can follow your video?
“The early parts yes absolutely, I purposefully start with the easier bits – the history, the applications, and then gradually get more involved with the physical setup of the problem and finally of course the maths of it all… And that’s pretty much where the idea to ‘strip back’ the equations came from – I thought to myself let’s begin simple and then slowly increase the difficulty until the equation is completely exposed. Being the ‘Naked Mathematician’ the next move was pretty obvious… as each layer of the equation is stripped back, I’m also stripping myself back until I’m just in my underwear – so almost completely exposed but not quite!”
Where did the whole idea of ‘stripping’ equations come from?
“I suppose I don’t really see it as ‘stripping’ per se, it’s there for comedic effect and really to show that maths is not the serious, boring, straight-laced subject that unfortunately most people think it is. Stripping for the videos is fine – it’s just me alone with my camera, but then earlier this year I was asked to give a live talk for the Oxford Invariants Society and they were very keen to emphasise that they wanted to see the Naked Mathematician in the flesh – quite literally!”
And how did it go?
“Well, barring some slightly awkward ‘costume changes’ between the layers of the equation – I went outside for the final reveal down to my underwear for example – it was good fun and definitely something I’d be keen to try out again… Perhaps maybe even an Equations Stripped Roadshow. I’m keen to try out anything that helps to improve the image that people have of maths.”
Stripping back the most important equations in maths so that everyone can understand…
The Normal Distribution is one of the most important in the world of probability, modelling everything from height and weight to salaries and number of offspring. It is used by advertisers to better target their products and by pharmaceutical companies to test the success of new drugs. It seems to fit almost any set of data, which is what makes it SO incredibly important…
You can watch all of the Equations Stripped series here.
The second live episode of Tom Rocks Maths on Oxide Radio – Oxford University’s student radio station. Featuring aliens, death by duel, Indiana Jones and the weekly maths puzzle for you to solve. Plus music from Rise Against, Good Charlotte and Asking Alexandria…