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.

Tom Rocks Maths S02 E02

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…

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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Oxplore: Do we see colour the same?

Livestream debate with researchers at the University of Oxford discussing the BIG question: do we see colour the same? Featuring an incredible trick with colour perception, a multiple choice question for you to try at home, and a discussion of the dress – is it blue and black or white and gold?

Tom Rocks Maths S02 E01

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…

Take me to your chalkboard

Is alien maths different from ours? And if it is, will they be able to understand the messages that we are sending into space? My summer intern Joe Double speaks to philosopher Professor Adrian Moore from BBC Radio 4’s ‘a history of the infinite’ to find out…

Tom Rocks Maths Episode 08

The final episode in season 1 of Tom Rocks Maths on Oxide Radio – Oxford University’s student radio station – with very special guests Jon and Nick discussing everything from the number of stickers needed to cover the Earth, to different types of infinity, via a new name for the world’s smallest number. Plus, a mammoth quiz to end the season in style and music from Nirvana and Soundgarden. This is maths, but not as you know it…

Maths proves that maths isn’t boring

If all the maths you’d ever seen was at school, then you’d be forgiven for thinking numbers were boring things that only a cold calculating robot could truly love. But, there is a mathematical proof that you’d be wrong: Gödel’s incompleteness theorem. It comes from a weird part of maths history which ended with a guy called Kurt Gödel proving that to do maths, you have to take thrill-seeking risks in a way a mindless robot never could, no matter how smart it was.

The weirdness begins with philosophers deciding to have a go at maths. Philosophers love (and envy) maths because they love certainty. No coincidence that Descartes, the guy you have to thank for x-y graphs, was also the genius who proved to himself that he actually existed and wasn’t just a dream (after all, who else would be the one worrying about being a dream?). Maths is great for worriers like him, because there’s no question of who is right and who is wrong – show a mathematician a watertight proof of your claim and they’ll stop arguing with you and go away (disclaimer: this may not to work with maths teachers…).

However, being philosophers, they eventually found a reason to worry again. After all, maths proofs can’t just start from nothing, they need some assumptions. If these are wrong, then the proof is no good. Most of the time, the assumptions will have proofs of their own, but as anyone who has argued with a child will know, eventually the buck has to stop somewhere. (“Why can’t I play Mario?” “Because it’s your bedtime.” “Why is it bedtime?!” “BECAUSE I SAY SO!”) Otherwise, you go on giving explanations forever.

The way this usually works for maths, is mathematicians agree on some excruciatingly obvious facts to leave unproved, called axioms. Think “1+1=2”, but then even more obvious than that (in fact, Bertrand Russell spent hundreds of pages proving that 1+1=2 from these stupidly basic facts!). This means that mathematicians can go about happily proving stuff from their axioms, and stop worrying. Peak boring maths.

But the philosophers still weren’t happy. Mostly, it was because the mathematicians massively screwed up their first go at thinking of obvious ‘facts’. How massively? The ‘facts’ they chose turned out to be nonsense. We know this because they told us things which flat-out contradicted each other. You could use them to ‘prove’ anything you like – and the opposite at the same time. You could ‘prove’ that God exists, and that He doesn’t – and no matter which one of those you think is true, we can all agree that they can’t both be right! In other words, the axioms the mathematicians chose were inconsistent.

Philosophers’ trust in maths was shattered (after all, it was their job to prove ridiculous stuff). Before they could trust another axiom ever again, they wanted some cast-iron proof that they weren’t going to be taken for another ride by the new axioms. But where could this proof start off? If we had to come up with a whole other list of axioms for it, then we’d need a proof for them too… This was all a bit of a headache.

The only way out the mathematicians and philosophers could see was to look for a proof that the new axioms were consistent, using only those new axioms themselves. This turned out to be very, very hard. In fact (and this is where Gödel steps in) it turned out to be impossible.

Cue Gödel’s incompleteness theorem. It says that any axioms that you can think of are either inconsistent – nonsense – or aren’t good enough to answer all of your maths questions. And, sadly, one of those questions has to be whether the axioms are inconsistent. In short, all good axioms are incomplete.

This may sound bad, but it’s really an exciting thing. It means that if you want to do maths, you really do have to take big risks, and be prepared to see your whole house of cards fall down in one big inconsistent pile of nonsense at any time. That takes serious nerve. It also means mathematicians have the best job security on the planet. If you could just write down axioms and get proof after proof out of them, like a production line, then you could easily make a mindless robot or a glorified calculator sit down and do it. But thanks to Gödel’s incompleteness theorem, we know for sure that will never happen. Maths needs a creative touch – a willingness to stick your neck out and try new axioms just to see what will happen – that no robot we can build will ever have.

Joe Double

Tom Rocks Maths Episode 07

The latest episode from Tom Rocks Maths on Oxide Radio – Oxford University’s student radio station. Featuring pirates that can’t count, the best way to carry a bundle of sticks, and special guest Toby, who talks about his favourite part of maths, his taste in music and tries out one of the infamous Tom Rocks Maths quizzes! Not forgetting the usual maths puzzle and great music from the Arctic Monkeys, Paramore and All Time Low…

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