Tom Crawford, and Rockin’ Maths Matters

Esther Lafferty meets Dr Tom Crawford in the surprisingly large and leafy grounds of St Hugh’s College Oxford as the leaves begin to fall from the trees. It’s a far cry from the northern town of Warrington where he grew up.

Tom is a lecturer in maths at St Hugh’s, where, defying all ‘mathematics lecturer’ stereotypes with his football fanaticism, piercings, tattoos, and wannabe rock musician attitude, he makes maths understandable, relevant and fun.

‘It was always maths that kept me captivated,’ he explains, ‘ever since I was seven or eight. I remember clearly a moment in school where we’d been taught long multiplication and set a series of questions in the textbook: I did them all and then kept going right to the end of the book because I was enjoying it so much! It was a bit of a surprise to my teacher because I could be naughty in class during other subjects, messing around once I’d finished whatever task we’d been set, but I’ve loved numbers for as long as I can remember and I still find the same satisfaction in them now. There’s such a clarity with numbers – there’s a right or else it’s wrong. In English or History you can write an essay packed with opinion and interpretation and however fascinating it might be, there are lots of grey areas, whereas maths is very black and white. I like that.’

‘My parents both left school at sixteen for various reasons but they appreciated the value of education. My mum worked in a bank so she perhaps had an underlying interest in numbers but it wasn’t something I was aware of. I went to the local school and was lucky enough to be one of the clever children but it wasn’t until I got my GCSE results [10 A*s] that the idea of Oxford or Cambridge was suggested to me. I would never have thought to consider it otherwise.

‘I remember coming down for an interview in Oxford, at St John’s, arriving late on a Sunday night and the following morning I took a stroll around the college grounds  – I could feel the history and traditions in the old buildings and it was awesome. I really wanted to be part of everything it represented. I thought it would be so cool to study here so I was very excited when I was offered a place to read maths.

‘Studying in Oxford I found I was most interested in applied maths, the maths that underpins physics and engineering for example. ‘Pure’ maths can be very abstract whereas I prefer to be able to visualise the problems I am trying to solve and then when you work out the answer, there’s a sudden feeling when you just know it’s right.’

In his second year, Tom became interested in outreach work, volunteering to take the excitement of maths into secondary schools under the tutelage of Prof Marcus Du Sautoy OBE as one of Marcus’s Marvellous Mathematicians (or M3), a group who work to increase the public understanding of science.

‘I went to China one summer to teach sixth formers and it was great to have the freedom to talk about so many different topics. I spent another summer in an actuary’s office because I was told that was the way to make real money out of maths – it was a starkly different experience. I realised I was not at all cut out for a suit and a screen!’ Tom smiles. ‘I am a real people-person and get a real buzz from showing everyone and anyone that you can enjoy maths, and that it is interesting and relevant. I love the subject so much and I think numbers get a bad press for being dull and difficult and yet they underpin pretty much everything in the whole universe. They can explain almost everything and you’ll find maths in topics from the weather to the dinosaurs.

Take something like the circus for example – hula-hoops spinning and circles in the ring, and then the trapeze is all about trigonometry: the lengths and angles of the triangle. Those sequinned trapeze artists are working out the distances and directions they need to leap as they traverse between trapezes and its maths that stops them plummeting to the floor!’

Having spent four years in Oxford Tom then spent five years at Cambridge University looking at the flow of river water when it enters the sea, researching the fluid dynamics of air, ice and water, and conducting fieldwork in the Antarctic confined to a boat for six weeks taking various measurements in sub-zero temperatures. You’d never expect a mathematician to be storm-chasing force 11 gales in a furry-hooded parka, but to get the data needed to help to improve our predictions of climate change, that was what had to be done!

Tom also spent a year as part of a production group known as the Naked Scientists, a team of scientists, doctors and communicators whose passion is to help the general public to understand and engage with the worlds of science, technology and medicine. The skills he obtained allowed him to kick-start his own maths communication programme Tom Rocks Maths, where he brings his own enthusiasm and inspiring ideas to a new generation alongside his lectureship in maths at St Hugh’s.

A keen footballer (and a massive Manchester United fan) it’s no surprise Tom has turned his thoughts to football and as part of IF Oxford, the science and ideas festival taking over Oxford city centre in October, Tom is presenting a free interactive talk (recommend for age twelve and over) on Maths versus Sport – covering how do you take the perfect penalty kick? What is the limit of human endurance – can we predict the fastest marathon time that will ever be achieved? And over a 2km race in a rowing eight, does the rotation of the earth really make a difference? Expect to be surprised by the answers.

Esther Lafferty, OX Magazine

The original article can be found here.

SJC Inspire: how to design a successful video game

Very excited to announce the launch of the SJC Inspire digital magazine this week – a project I’ve been working on for the past few months in my role as Access and Outreach Associate for STEM at St John’s College, Oxford.

The first issues is ‘how to design a successful video game’ and features articles by researchers at St John’s, video interviews with students at the college, and practice puzzles set (and solved) by real Oxford tutors (myself included). I’ve highlighted some of my favourites below, but be sure to check out the full contents of the issue on the website here.

Maths in video games

My former tutorial partner, James Hyde, now works for Creative Assembly developing hit titles such as Halo Wars and Halo Wars 2. Here he explains how maths has helped him to land his dream job…

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Fun and games at the circus

Try out this maths puzzle set by St John’s maths tutor Dr David Seifert. If you send your answers in to inspire@sjc.ox.ac.uk you might even win a goodie bag!

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How to earn billions by giving something away for free

St John’s Economics tutor Dr Kate Doornik explains the pricing strategy behind the incredibly successful ‘Fortnite: Battle Royale’. Originally given away for free, it is expected to make over $3 billion in sales in 2018…

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Science Oxford Interview: From Togas to Tattoos…

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.”

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