A translation of an article about my work in Spanish newspaper La Razon. You can read the original article here.
Mathematics was, as for so many classmates with little numerical capacity, the coconut of my adolescence. In a twisting mortal with pedagogy, my teacher came to suspend me with a 4.9. I always stayed 0.1 to understand algebra and today I can’t survive without a calculator. I am not proud. I wonder if everything would have gone better with Tom Crawford. This Brit is a professor at Oxford, but he doesn’t wear a herringbone jacket or bottle-butt glasses nor is he older than the polka. Tom is an AC / DC math, the punk kid in the bunch. Unlike the old masters, he does not use the ruler as a throwing weapon but, at most, to measure the meters of cloth that is removed from each lesson. He is a “naked scientist”, not as a nod to precariousness but as a seduction pedagogical strategy. “I want to take the solemnity off the math, make it entertaining,” he says.
That goes through a “look” of a hangover rocker with a given shirt, sucks, piercing, tattoos and hair dye. He calls himself “Tom Rocks Maths.” His profiles on networks and his informative videos, in which he ends up posing in leopard-print briefs, have legions of followers. Will it be the solution to my problems? Be that as it may, Crawford was in Madrid yesterday, for the first time in Spain, to give a talk in his own way about mathematics applied to sport. The event took place at the Student Residence, where in 1923 another weird boy, with more clothes and more hair, Einstein, summed up his theory of relativity in an act presented and translated by Ortega and Gaset. The list of visits to that leading institution is as interesting as that of its well-known students: Lorca, Dalí, Buñuel …
The Residence has long become part of a memorial of what it was, but its teaching program continues far from the spotlight, without neglecting the field of science, which seems to have been overlapped when speaking of the Residence due to talent. creative of the boys of Letters already mentioned. Tom Crawford is the last visit and, although we may feel like a histrion or a secondary actor in “Trainspotting”, we must not forget that this is purely an eminence from Oxford.
A translation of my interview with Spanish newspaper ‘El Confidencial’ discussing my approach to presenting maths as the solution to everyday problems. The original interview (in Spanish) with Guillermo Cid can be found here.
This teacher knows how to shoot the perfect penalty: “The secret is in the numbers”
Doctor of applied mathematics Tom Crawford has spent years researching and demonstrating how numbers are much more than theory and can be key to our day to day
It is easily seen and is unquestionable. Tom Crawford is not a mathematician, and he knows it perfectly. His image is far and away from those ideas of the typical serious, boring, number-focused expert with squares in all his aspects of life, and it’s not a coincidence. This Englishman, a professor at Oxford University and a doctor from Cambridge University since 2016, is a loose verse in the sector and focuses all his work on proving it . For what? To teach everyone that mathematics is not just theory and paper and that it is present in all aspects of our lives.
With these ideas he has become a famous popularizer in his own country, participating in all kinds of radio programs from stations such as the BBC, and he even has a YouTube channel where he teaches mathematics in a different way. His stage name is Tom Rocks Maths and he is known as ‘the naked mathematician’ because he makes many of his videos without a shirt and even without pants.
This week Crawford is visiting Spain with an event at the Madrid Student Residence where he will talk about one of the aspects that has given him the most success, the relationship between sports and mathematics, and he has been talking with The Confidential on his entire career and, especially, on how the world of sports is intertwined with numbers.
Fan of soccer and of players like N’Golo Kanté or Roberto Firmino, assures that mathematics is leading the human being “to overcome his limits” and that it has been shown that they are a differential point in disciplines such as soccer, but without humans behind it nothing makes sense. “Mathematics is not magic, but a tool that we must know, understand and apply for our benefit.”
Q: Professor of mathematics at the University of Oxford, doctor of applied mathematics, popularizer … Why have you decided to give a talk on the relationship between mathematics and sport?
A: I love doing sports and following it, and I also love math, so I decided to join both fields. My favorite sports are soccer and running, and in those disciplines I focus research and talk. But well , the main thing is that they are very followed and practiced sports and that they have a clear relationship with the world of numbers. Talking about them, it is very easy to demonstrate how ‘mates’ are present in everything and are very relevant to our day to day. It removes the idea that it is only theoretical and that you learn almost by obligation.
Q: Today we have the cases of Eliud Kipchoge or some soccer teams that are clearly committed to technology and science, with mathematics very present, to improve their brands or achieve greater success. Do you think that there will be a limit in which these disciplines can no longer help us and the human being stops breaking records?
A: It is an interesting matter. For example, if we look at the evolution of athletic records in the last 20 years, we see a graph in which there is a constant and very steep drop in marks. Suddenly, in the early 2000s, disciplines such as mathematics began to come into play and the consequence was that records fell at a dizzying rate, also driven by improvements in training, in nutrition, in scientific research, in the professionalization of the industry … That yes, that occurs until a few years ago, and it is that this fall is stopping.
This, in my view, means that we are also reaching a new limit in progression. Come on, it is already difficult to continue breaking current records and you only have to see the case of Kipchoge and the two hours of the marathon. I do not know how far we can continue to improve, although mathematics could end up giving us a prediction, but I do believe that there will be a time when we will not be able to continue breaking more records. I do not know, it is impossible to think that a person can run 42 kilometers in an hour, for example, no matter how much scientific and technological knowledge is used.
Q: In football we see more and more teams and clubs that invest millions in ‘big data’ and other knowledge to improve their performance, is this key for a team as well as in athletics?
A: Yes, I think that investment in these areas can be key to improve a team, to study new players, to see the performance of the squad … Of course, without the intervention of a good human team this is useless . The thing is not only to have large volumes of data and good analysis programs, you need people who know how to interpret that information and can also analyze it and make decisions about what they find.
For me a perfect example is that of N’Golo Kanté. The player, who is now at Chelsea, arrived at Leicester City who ended up winning the English league from a French second division team. They signed him because he had stealing and intercepting statistics well above the average in his league, so much so that he made Leicester scouts look at him. But then the team employees had to go to see if he really was a good player, if he fulfilled what they were looking for, if he fit into his system and things went well. The data can give you clues or help you find the player that fits for a position, but then you must do a personal analysis and check what you are looking for. It is not something magical or perfect.
Another good example that demonstrates this is Roberto Firmino. He is a perfect player for the Liverpool system but that was not seen with the data, let’s say, more often like goals or assists, but with other types of records that are more covered but are very important. Who says what data we should look at is a human being who then uses mathematical tools to find just what he is looking for.
Q: In Spain now the use of ‘big data’ has become very fashionable in the sports environment, can a bubble be generated around all this following the case of ‘Moneyball’?
A: Obviously there is a danger and that is that without the correct human vision, without an analysis that makes sense of data and numbers and knows how to analyze them correctly, databases are only millions of numbers. You need a correct interpretation to give value to what you do, otherwise they are useless.
This type of knowledge is not something magical or perfect. They are super useful tools but without a human team that decides what information is important or how we should look at them, the investment will be useless.
Q: One of your most famous sports-related research talks about shooting the perfect penalty. How does mathematics say that you have to shoot that penalty?
A: Yes, the answer is in the numbers. Obviously there is no place that ensures 100% success, but there are two points in the goal that offer you up to 80%. Where are those points? Well, in the corners, as long as the goalkeeper is in the center of the goal.
Studying the speed of the shots and the capacity of the professional goalkeepers, it can be said that the goalkeeper has half a second to react and move from the moment the player shoots until the ball enters the goal. In that time the goalkeeper can move in an arc that does not occupy the entire goal but leaves the sides and especially the corners free, since it is impossible to physically get there from the center.
You have all that leftover area to mark with great security, but the most interesting thing for me is that if we create a circle between the corner that forms the squad and the semicircle that the goalkeeper can reach, we have the perfect point to shoot drawn on the center of that circle. A point as far from the goalkeeper as from the post as from the crossbar. If you are able to shoot at that point you will have thrown a perfect penalty. I think the measurements are something like 1.7 meters high and 0.65 meters measuring from the stick to the inside. Obviously nothing tells you to score because the goalkeeper can move or guess your intentions, but it is the safest place to score.
Q: Math is usually thought of as boring and difficult, and you try to turn this thinking around with this type of research and topic. Do you think that the idea about mathematics can change with these actions?
A: I think there is still a lot to do. It’s not so much that you don’t know what math is but that people don’t understand or are afraid of math. When you are with friends, you don’t hear anyone say let’s not talk about history because I don’t understand history, but you do hear about mathematics. That is what has to change. It can’t be cool to say that you don’t understand math or don’t like math.
But the worst thing is that many do not believe that mathematics is useful and relevant for life. They believe that everything is theory that stays in class and on paper, and that’s why I decided to change this idea by relating this knowledge to real life. Sport is a great example. People are closely related to sports, and even more so to soccer. If you can show people how numbers are being used or can be used in these fields, the message will come much more than simply talking about formulas or theories. Without going any further, we have already discussed the penalty case.
Q: And does ‘Mathematicians naked’ follow this idea?
A: Yes, well, normally people think mathematics is serious and boring, and almost by accident I thought that taking off my shirt and giving a different image could attract users. I created a YouTube channel to teach math and discovered that many people entered when they saw that there was a guy without a shirt in front of the camera. That was not the initial idea but this is how I have managed to get many people who are not related to mathematics to enter this world.
Many people remember math with bad experiences in class, exams and so on and my videos try to change this and leave at least one good experience to at least lose the fear of math and users see that not only are they not scary but they are very important to your life. In addition, in the videos they see that I have tattoos related to formulas and others and that in itself gives you an idea of something positive, ‘cool’.
Q: In Spain we have a paradox with mathematics because while many students do not like them, they have the highest grade to enter university because they have many job opportunities. Do you think that the ‘boom’ in mathematics in the workplace is good for people to get to know this world better?
A: As a mathematician, I think the more mathematicians there are, the better for everyone. There are many sectors where they are needed and the people who make this career are usually graduates who face problems very well, know how to find solutions and have the ability to analyze all kinds of situations. That is why I think that a ‘boom’ in this sector is good for all of society, but I understand that there may be a double reading for this.
If a lot of people get into a race just for work, they will end up being unhappy and have no passion to do their daily work. If the only motivation that leads you to study a career and dedicate yourself to a profession is that there is work, it is very likely that the bad days with cold, with a lot of work, with personal problems or little desire to work end up leaving everything.
This week I had the honour of speaking at the Residencia de Estudiantes in Madrid, which has previously hosted Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Salvador Dali and Igor Stravinsky amongst many, many others.
Ahead of the event I was asked a few questions by the organisers, and here are my answers.
Without revealing all your talk: could you give us an idea about how maths can help to be better at sports?
From calculating the perfect placement of a penalty kick in football to maximise your chance of scoring, to identifying the best location on Earth to try to break a world record, maths can be used to help to improve our performance in almost any sport. The difficultly lies in writing down the correct equations, but once we have them, maths has the answers.
Can you tell us any real example of this maths application?
My favourite example is one that will be featured in my talk: if attempting to break a world record in rowing, the best place to do so is on the equator. This may seem counter-intuitive at first, but as I will explain, by changing the location to the equator you can increase performance by up to 8%, which for an elite athlete is an incredible boost!
In your opinion: what makes maths so useful in different sports context?
Maths can be applied to anything. This is one of the main reasons that I love the subject and travel the world championing its versatility. Given a situation in any sport, you can always use equations to describe what is happening. This might be how a tennis ball moves through the air, or the aerodynamics of a swimmer gliding through the water. Once you have the equations, maths allows you to solve them for the optimal solution, which can then be translated into improved performance by changing your technique appropriately.
You also explain that the mathematical results in sports may vary, how? In which way? What should athletes take into account?
The ideas discussed in my talk are aimed at professional athletes who are already performing at a very high level and therefore need to resort to other approaches to improve performance beyond increased practice. For amateur athletes, whilst the same ideas will still be applicable, they are much more likely to benefit from practice!
What is your personal experience with sports? Have you ever used “math tricks” for optimise your scores?
The idea for the talk came from wanting to combine my two main passions: mathematics and sport. I play football regularly and as the designated penalty taker for my team have ample opportunity to try to hit the mathematically calculated perfect position for a shot. I also run marathons where my knowledge of the history (and mathematically predicted future) of the world record helps me to appreciate my accomplishments in the event.
How did you become a math communicator?
My first taste of maths communication came during my undergraduate degree at Oxford, where I joined the maths outreach group “Marcus’ Marvellous Mathemagicians”. The group was named after Marcus du Sautoy and performed interactive talks and workshops on his behalf in schools across the UK. The next opportunity came during my PhD when I spent two months working with the “Naked Scientists” team in Cambridge to produce a weekly science radio programme for the BBC. I enjoyed the placement so much that I agreed to join the team full-time upon completion of my PhD. After one year of working in radio production, I began to realise that my true calling was in video, and “Tom Rocks Maths” was born.
How are outreach, teaching and research connected in your professional life?
As someone who came from a state school background and worked extremely hard to get to Oxford, I have always had a passion for outreach and the drive to make university accessible to all. My maths communication work is an extension of this, allowing me to not only to visit schools in deprived areas to try to inspire them to consider higher education, but also to encourage the general public to engage more with the subject of maths and to no longer be afraid of numbers.
The teaching role fits perfectly with maths communication as both roles require the ability to be able to explain difficult concepts in ways that can be understood by a given audience. For a public lecture, the mathematical ability of the audience is perhaps less than that of a class of undergraduates, but the need for clear communication remains the same. In this way, I find that each role complements the other perfectly, with many of the topics that my students find difficult providing inspiration for future video ideas.
What do you enjoy most in your outreach talks?
There is nothing I enjoy more than being able to present to a live audience. Whilst I enjoy all aspects of my outreach work – YouTube, television, radio, writing – nothing beats the thrill of speaking to a room full of people who want to hear what you have to say. The small interactions with each individual member of the audience, whether through eye contact or answering a question, remain with me long after the event and act as one of my main motivations to continue with my work.
You are not the speaker one might expect when thinking about a maths communicator, what kind of reactions have you find in this sense? Do you have any anecdote regarding this?
There are two ways of looking at this: first, the notion of a stereotypical mathematician is outdated and from my experience not representative of a large part of the demographic; and second, I hope that by putting myself forward as a public face of mathematics I can help others who may be thinking that they can’t be a mathematician just because of the way that they look.
In terms of anecdotes, I think it best that I point you in the direction of the comments on my YouTube videos…
In particular, what are the reactions with “Equations stripped”? How did you come up with the idea of this series?
The “Equations Stripped” is possibly my favourite of all of the things that I do because it helps to tackle the idea that maths should be serious. The concept of the videos came from thinking about this opinion and trying to come up with what I thought was the best way to present the subject as anything but serious. The result is me talking about maths in my underwear!
My role with the “Naked Scientists” also played a part, as the name would often lead to listeners (or even guests) suggesting that we should all be naked when recording the show, and of course being a radio programme no-one could prove or disprove the theory! I always thought that we should have had more fun with this concept, and when “Tom Rocks Maths” was launched Naked Maths seemed like the way to go!
Episode 10 of Tom Rocks Maths on Oxide Radio sees the conclusion of the million-dollar Millennium Problem series with the Hodge Conjecture, a mischievously difficult number puzzle, and the answer to the question on everyone’s lips: how many people have died watching the video of Justin Bieber’s Despacito? Plus, the usual great music from the Prodigy, the Hives and Weezer.
The first 3 articles from my Millennium Problems series have been published in Cambridge University’s Eureka Magazine – one of the oldest recreational mathematics magazines in the world, with authors including: Nobel Laureate Paul Dirac, Fields Medallist Timothy Gowers, as well as Martin Gardner, Stephen Hawking, Paul Erdös, John Conway, Roger Penrose and Ian Stewart. To say I’m excited would be an understatement… (pages 82-84 in case you’re interested).
Tom Rocks Maths is back on Oxide Radio for Hilary Term 2019 with the usual eclectic mix of maths and music. Learn more about the only million-dollar Millennium Problem that’s been solved so far, fun facts about the number 6, and a nursery rhyme themed puzzle. Plus, music from Bring me the Horizon, Queen and Papa Roach. This is maths, but not as you know it…
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.
On Wednesday March 13th I’ll be presenting my research to MP’s at the Houses of Parliament in the final of the STEM for Britain Competition. You can find my research poster on modelling the spread of pollution in the oceans here.
Dr Tom Crawford, 29, a mathematician at Oxford University hailing from Warrington, is attending Parliament to present his mathematics research to a range of politicians and a panel of expert judges, as part of STEM for BRITAIN on Wednesday 13th March.
Tom’s poster on research about the spread of pollution in the ocean will be judged against dozens of other scientists’ research in the only national competition of its kind.
Tom was shortlisted from hundreds of applicants to appear in Parliament.
On presenting his research in Parliament, he said, “I want to bring maths to as wide an audience as possible and having the opportunity to talk about my work with MP’s – and hopefully show them that maths isn’t as scary as they might think – is fantastic!”
Stephen Metcalfe MP, Chairman of the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee, said: “This annual competition is an important date in the parliamentary calendar because it gives MPs an opportunity to speak to a wide range of the country’s best young researchers.
“These early career engineers, mathematicians and scientists are the architects of our future and STEM for BRITAIN is politicians’ best opportunity to meet them and understand their work.”
Tom’s research has been entered into the mathematical sciences session of the competition, which will end in a gold, silver and bronze prize-giving ceremony.
Judged by leading academics, the gold medalist receives £2,000, while silver and bronze receive £1,250 and £750 respectively.
The Parliamentary and Scientific Committee runs the event in collaboration with the Royal Academy of Engineering, the Royal Society of Chemistry, the Institute of Physics, the Royal Society of Biology, The Physiological Society and the Council for the Mathematical Sciences, with financial support from the Clay Mathematics Institute, United Kingdom Research and Innovation, Warwick Manufacturing Group, Society of Chemical Industry, the Nutrition Society, Institute of Biomedical Science the Heilbronn Institute for Mathematical Research, and the Comino Foundation.
The second episode of season 2 of Tom Rocks Maths on Oxide Radio – Oxford University’s student radio station. Featuring the numbers behind the sub 2-hour marathon world record attempt, P versus NP and the battle for control of the world, and the usual dose of Funbers with my super sweet 16. Plus, music from Blink 182, Billy Talent and Hollywood Undead. This is maths, but not as you know it…