El Pais: The Oxford teacher who stays in briefs to teach mathematics

Tom Crawford talks about how mathematics can help win a football league or the real ability of algorithms to manipulate people’s behaviour.

Tom Crawford (Warrington, United Kingdom, 1989) is presented as an atypical math teacher. He teaches mathematics to first and second year students at the University of Oxford (United Kingdom) and carries out an intense dissemination work in which he tries to approach a discipline that is not usually found among the favourites of young students.

In his attempt to popularise science, he does not hesitate to stay in his underpants , using the striptease as a metaphor for his work deepening the meaning of equations such as Navier-Stokes, unveiling them layer by layer, to make something affordable that can result in principle esoteric.

This week, Crawford visited the Student Residence, in Madrid, where, within the Mathematics in Residence cycle organised by the ICMAT, he offered the conference  Mathematics of sport . In it, he uses sport as an example of a daily activity that can be better understood and practiced using mathematical equations.

Question. You undress or use sports to make mathematics impose less. Why is it necessary to show that mathematics is fun? I don’t see lawyers or judges, who also deal with very complex issues, trying to present the law as something fun.

Answer. I think it’s because people, for whatever reason, happily admit that they don’t like math, it’s socially acceptable. If you tell someone that you are a lawyer, their default answer is not going to be “I don’t like the law,” and that does happen with math. And it shouldn’t be like that. Everyone should have a basic understanding of math, but many people don’t have it. For me, that is why I want to emphasize that mathematics is fun and accessible. It doesn’t have to be something very hard or something that was taught badly in school.

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Q. Do you think mathematics is taught especially badly in school, worse than other subjects?

A. Mathematics has a hard time competing with other subjects in the sense of teaching them through stories. When you learn something, if they can teach you through stories, it is something very powerful, which serves to catch people. And that is easier with literature or history.

A very simple example of how to add stories to mathematics would be trigonometry. The properties of the triangles you learn in high school. If you think about how these functions were discovered or invented, why we invented the sine, the cosine and the tangent, it was the ancient architects who tried to build buildings, churches, pyramids and created those intellectual tools. This is how trigonometry should be taught to me. Imagine they are in ancient Rome and you have to build a concrete building. How would you do it with the technologies available at that time? This prompts you to think about angles and distances and that is where trigonometry is useful and what it was invented for.

Q. A little more than a century ago, in a country like Spain, more than half of the population was illiterate. Do you think it would be possible and desirable to get a large majority of people to be able to handle basic mathematical tools?

A. It is completely possible and I would say that we are already doing it. It depends on what you consider a basic level of mathematics. Most people can, for example, looking at a clock know that the needles return to the same place every 12 hours, it is modular arithmetic, something you don’t study until you get to college. Even being able to calculate changes when they give you a ticket is to do mental arithmetic. Or calculate when you have to leave home if it takes 35 minutes to the station and the train leaves at 12.45. There are many things you do without thinking, but that involve mathematical calculations. So it depends on what you consider a desirable level of mathematics, but a large part of the population already has some capacity to use them.

“You can question whether trying to influence voters is good or bad”

Q. He also talks about the possibilities of mathematics to improve the performance of athletes. There is a movie like Money Ball , which talks about the experience of a baseball coach who uses mathematical analysis to lead a small team to compete against the big ones in the league with much less budget. Do you use math a lot in elite sport?

A. As far as I know, it is an important part of the scout systems of large teams. Today, these scouts, in addition to the classic analysis of a player’s performance, strengths and weaknesses, include teams of mathematicians and data scientists. As in Moneyball , your job is to analyse large amounts of data and detect marginal gains to take advantage of. That works well in baseball, because you have many controllable factors: The pitching of the pitcher, the batter, the race to the base. It is very formulable and they are repetitive behaviours. In football it is more difficult to find those marginal gains because it is less controllable.

The best example I can think of in football is Leicester City, which won the Premiere League in 2016. A big surprise. They had climbed to the first few years before and suddenly they win. In that victory, N’Golo Kanté was very important. He was the star of the season and won the player of the year award. He had been signed by a French second division team because the scout network had identified him among all the defensive midfielders in Europe at any level. As a defensive camper centre, one of your jobs is to stop the attacks of opponents. You can measure this in tickets, but one of the best ways to do this is through interceptions, which has to do with the player’s ability to read a game. It is something very difficult to assess with a number, quite subjective. But interceptions suggest that you are very often in the right place. And from that point of view, their number of interceptions was much higher statistically than the rest of midfielders. If the average of all midfielders in Europe is two, but most of the players are between 1.9 and 2.1 and Kanté is at 3, we see that it is an atypical case. It was not just a statistical analysis, because the human element is valued, but it was a factor to hire him.

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The mathematician Tom Crawford at the Student Residence, in Madrid. ÁLVARO GARCÍA

Q. Can mathematics tell us what is the limit of human performance in sport? There have already been examples in the past, such as Roger Bannister’s, which went down four minutes on the mile when almost everyone said it was impossible, in which the predictions were completely wrong. Can these limits be accurately identified using mathematics?

R.If you look at the men’s marathon record during the last century, the marks descend, but not at a constant pace. You can estimate, for example, that every 10 years, 10 minutes are trimmed at the beginning, but then, in the 1940s and 1950s, the curve begins to flatten out and already in the 1990s it seems completely flat. So if we had sat here 30 years ago, when the record was around two hours and five minutes, we could have thought we would never run below two hours, because even if it keeps going down, the pace is getting slower. But in recent years, there has been much progress in long-distance races, such as new shoes that can provide 4% more energy. In addition, there is a professionalisation that allows you to train all day and not have a job besides running.

“I could predict with some confidence that the human limit for the marathon would be about an hour and 55 minutes”

So these are new factors that modify our calculations. In the future, in 30 years, new improvements may appear, but it is certain that we will not run a marathon in less than an hour. Given what has happened in the past, I think I could predict with some confidence that the human limit for the marathon would be about an hour and 55 minutes.

Q. Some people, when talking about the possibilities of mathematics to bring humans to the limit of perfection, may think that sports will become more boring, because there will be less and less space for the unexpected.

A. I think that also has to do with the human psychological trait that is nostalgia. But sport evolves and there is always a human factor. If the study allows you to perfect the place where it is better to throw a penalty, the goalkeepers can also work with that information. And then, there are some players who do not shoot at that supposedly perfect space, such as Eden Hazard, of Real Madrid, who when he threw the penalties for Chelsea waited until the last moment to decide where he threw it, a method that goes against what he says The mathematical model. In the end there are many variables in sports.

Q. Can mathematics help us better understand human groups? Does that technology have the potential to improve living together or to make it worse?

A. With all the data available, there are huge technology companies that can make profiles of people. Knowing that you are white, American, that you earn so much money and live in such a state, they can try to predict what you like or what you do and influence your vote in one direction. But this technology could also be used for good and you can also question whether trying to influence voters is good or bad. I think that ultimately we depend on the big companies that have control over these data so that they assume their moral responsibility and use the data well.

In any case, I think that most of the mathematicians working in this field would say that the idea of ​​using mathematical data, algorithms and models to try to predict people’s behaviour is incredibly new and we don’t know exactly what we are doing. Algorithms may be a part of the decision making process, but not the only criteria for making a decision.

You can read the original article on El Pais here.

El Mundo Interview

During my recent trip to Madrid to speak at the Residencia de Estudiantes, I was interviewed by national newspaper ‘El Mundo’ about my talk on the ‘Maths of Sport’ and my mission to popularise maths. The original interview can be found here.

Known as Tom Rocks Maths, the Oxford University scientist transforms boring formulas into fascinating models that he applies to sport to improve records and reduce errors.

MAR DE MIGUEL | Madrid

Football World Cup, 2018. 1-1 on the scoreboard. Spain plays its pass to the quarterfinals in the penalty round against Russia. Koke has failed one. Cheryshev is ready to throw. He scores. It’s up to Aspas. Expectation. Whistle. Launch and … Akinfeev stops it. We miss the game.

Could it have been avoided? The answer is Tom Crawford, l’ enfant terrible of numbers, a punkrocker in the court of mathematicians at the University of Oxford. And he explains it with a worn shirt, leather jacket, curled hair, piercing and tattoos. Because Crawford is not a common scientist. He is Tom Rocks Maths, an alternative researcher and communicator who transforms boring formulas into fascinating models that he applies to sports science, his second passion as a marathoner and a follower of Manchester United.

But, since all science is not exact, nor is Crawford a fortune teller, his predictions are based on data, taking into account all possible variables and, above all, on the highest probability of hitting. It is about getting ahead of the facts, of having all the necessary information to reduce errors and improve the records.

The mathematics of sport consist of “building models using data from the past to predict the future. When you don’t have them, you have to go to the field, contact the athletes and gather new information, ”explains Crawford in an interview with EL MUNDO after the talk he gave Tuesday in Madrid during the cycle of conferences ‘Mathematics in the Residence’, organized by ICMAT, the Student Residence and the Deputy Vice Presidency of Scientific Culture of the CSIC.

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Madrid, 12 de noviembre de 2019. El matemático Tom Crawford posa en la Residencia de Estudiantes antes de una conferencia. Foto: Antonio Heredia

Win or lose penalties

The countries that best know how to throw penalties are Uruguay, Germany, Argentina and Brazil. Spain is not good, not bad. We are 50% among this list of experts and 50% of the worst, Mexico. We share media with France and Ireland. But how a team is better than another is not a matter of tradition or genetics, but numbers.

The first thing is to know how the players have responded before to the penalties, their statistics of failures and successes. According to Crawford, in the case of the 2018 World Cup, while Iniesta had four hits of five shots, Koke had zero of one and Aspas 16 of 17. The great surprise could have been given by Thiago, a substitute with a full in hits, four of four.

There is also a way to measure their stress responses with glasses that observe the movements of the eye. Footballers who are not immuted by pressure keep their eyes fixed and the most distracted move them. Knowing this in advance could decide the choice of a coach to choose the most focused players on those decisive penalties of a World Cup. “Football clubs now have entire teams of mathematicians and scientists who analyze all this data,” says Crawford.

But math doesn’t end there. In a goal you can make as many measures as your imagination, as Archimedes, to find the radius that indicates the exact area where you should place the ball without being stopped by the goalkeeper. It is called an insurmountable area and it depends, among other things, on the distance the goalkeeper moves in the shortest possible time from his position in the center. It looks like this: r2-2r(a+b+R)+a2+b2-R2. “These calculations are going to help you but they don’t guarantee that the penalty is perfect. In fact, the goalkeeper may also have trained against these formulas, ” Crawford alerts.

Roberto Carlos, the king of the Magnus effect 

If penalties are a science, free kicks are not far behind. Defining its trajectory is one of Crawford’s favorite equations when the ball is given effect, as we have allways called it, which also has its scientific name: Magnus effect. “The ball that spins does not go in a straight line, because the rotation moves it to the side,” he said.

In this modality, for Crawford there is a master: Roberto Carlos, king of the Magnus effect in a match against France in 1997. It happened like this: he carefully placed the ball with his hands on the ground. He kicked. The ball passed over the barrier of players, turned in the air to the right, then to the left, hit a stick and entered as a stroke.

“I saw it when i was eight years old and I thought that it was impossible, that it was magic. But years later, using this equation to model Roberto Carlos’s shot, by entering the correct data (the speed of the ball, the distance to the door and the spin that applies to the ball) the formula accurately predicted that movement. It is still amazing. Although now I have an explanation that tells me that it did not break the barriers of physics.”

Marathon in less than two hours

In Tom Crawford’s mind there are not only favorite sport formulas but also graphics. And if there is one that drives him crazy it is the one that calculates, with a curve, when you will be able to run, with conventional methods, a marathon in less than 2 hours, something that it could happen between 2027 and 2035.

The record is owned by Kenyan Eliud Kipchoge, 2:01:39. He obtained it in Berlin in September 2018. In October of this year, the same athlete beat it at 1:59:40, but his feat was not accepted by the International Athletics Federation. “It has not been taken into account because they have broken the rules. As a new official mark, this record below two hours does not count, ”says Crawford.

How they did it? “Creating the perfect race,” says Crawford. And something else: a flat route in a straight line to go through the center of the track; a pair of shoes with carbon fiber that balances and saves 4% of energy; a tape on the leg with lumps (like golf balls) that create streams; a squad of escorts in V to cut the wind (called hares); a car that laser marks the ground so that these satellite corridors maintain the perfect position; a scanner that controls the muscle accumulation of carbohydrates and an enriched diet.

“Where you draw the line between what is due to the human element or an incredible shoe. What is the next? Putting rockets in our soles? ”Crawford wonders. We saw it in swimming a few years ago with high-tech swimsuits that reduce friction with water. They were even questioned for increasing buoyancy. With them, in some competitions 130 records were broken in just two years.

It is clear that mathematics helps to overcome tests and marks. However, in sports there are uncontrollable factors, such as the mental control of athletes, to disarm algorithms. “You can never add that factor to your models. You can never really predict a sport with total certainty. There are many unknown variables, ”reflects the English mathematician.

And, returning to the football game that we lost in 2018, would we have win if we knew the data in depth and having other players thrown the penalties that took us out of the World Cup? According to Crawford, we could have reduced the risk of losing, but this is something we will never know. What is highly certain is that their talks not only reinforce the devotion to sports, but also awake the mathematical vocation of the youngest students.

Residencia de Estudiantes, Madrid

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.

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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.

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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!

New Scientist Live – Maths v Sport

Come and see my talk at New Scientist Live on September 23rd as I explain how to take the perfect penalty kick, investigate whether or not humans will ever break the 2-hour marathon barrier, and examine how the Earth’s rotation affects sports as varied as Golf, Rowing and Cricket.

Use code CRAWFORD10 for 10% off your ticket price – book 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.

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