I was recently interviewed by Lucia Taboada for La Redada Podcast about my love of maths and how it is used in today’s world to model everything from penalty kicks to the next TV series you watch on Netflix. The interview was translated into Spanish for the actual podcast so I’ve also included the original recording of my answers in English – enjoy!
On your YouTube channel, you present science in an entertaining way. Why is maths so unpopular sometimes, maybe students are afraid of maths?
How would you define the importance of mathematics in our life?
Tom, I’m a huge supporter of a Spanish team called Celta de Vigo. You explain the possibilities using maths to improve the performance of football players. How can Celta de Vigo use this to improve? (unfortunately, we are now in the last positions)
Penalty kicks are a science? Can you predict them?
Have you been hired by any football team?
Do you think football teams should hire math workers?
You are a tutor in St John’s College at the University of Oxford where you teach maths to the first and second year undergraduates. Oxford is a traditional university – how are your methods received there?
You have some maths tattoos on your body, thats right? Explain them to us?
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.
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.
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!
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.
I was asked by the Daily Mirror to analyse the England football team’s penalty kicks against Colombia in the World Cup second round. You can find the key insights below and the full article online here.
Image: Dr Ken Bray, University of Bath
Harry Kane – Kane’s very calm and confident in his walk up to the penalty spot showing that he has prepared well mentally. He carefully places the ball and adjusts his socks before firing low and hard into the bottom left-hand corner of the net. The keeper goes the right way but it’s too accurate and right in the corner of the ‘unsaveable zone’.
Marcus Rashford – A different approach on the walk up as he keeps his head down to make sure he doesn’t give anything away to the Colombia keeper. He curves his run-up to add extra disguise to the shot and puts it in almost exactly the same place as Harry Kane. Again, the Colombia keeper goes the right way but it’s too fast, too accurate and right in the bottom corner of the ‘unsaveable zone’.
Jordan Henderson – The ‘kick-ups’ on the walk to the penalty area show he’s nervous and the look on his face also hints at a lack of confidence. The placement of the shot is actually very good as he hits the ‘unsaveable zone’ to the left of the keeper, but his shot is a little higher than the previous two making it a more comfortable height for the goalie, and his wide run-up gives the game away as he opens his body to go to the right. If you look closely you’ll see that Ospina moves before Henderson kicks the ball which is why he’s able to reach beyond the ‘diving envelope’ and make the save.
Kieran Trippier – He has his head down and a look of complete focus on his face as he approaches the penalty spot. After a little glance up to make sure he knows where he’s going, he buries it in the top left corner in the perfect spot. Comparing Trippier’s penalty to the fourth Colombian taker, Uribe, who missed, it’s the use of the inside of his foot that makes all of the difference. Despite them both aiming for the top corner of the ‘unsaveable zone’, Uribe leant back and went with his laces making it less controlled than Trippier’s side foot. It’s also interesting that England’s nominated set piece taker went fourth in the line-up. No doubt, because Gareth Southgate knew that the fourth penalty would be key to victory as one that goalkeepers are likely to save.
Eric Dier – Positionally, probably the worst of the five England penalties as it was the closest to the centre of the goal and the edge of the ‘diving envelope’ which is within reach of Ospina. The key aspect of Dier’s penalty that allowed him to score was the fact that it was along the ground. Ospina dives the correct way, but can’t reach close enough to his body to make the save. Compare this to Jordan Henderson’s penalty, which was much closer to the corner, but at a more comfortable height for the save.
4 of the 5 penalties went to the left of the goalkeeper and were all scored, whereas the one that went to the right of the keeper was saved.
All of England’s penalty takers were right-footed.
2 of the 5 penalty takers were substitutes, likely brought on to take a penalty in the shootout.
All of England’s penalties hit the ‘unsaveable zone’, maximising the chances of scoring. For Colombia only 2 of the 5 penalties hit the ‘unsaveable zone’.
Jordan Pickford saved the fifth and final penalty, demonstrating how it is more likely for a goalkeeper to make a save later in the shootout.
England benefitted from good preparation from the manager in selecting his line-up months in advance, aiming consistently for the ‘unsaveable zone’ which is the most difficult area for the goalkeeper to reach, and by preparing well mentally and taking their time with each shot. Ultimately, these 3 things were key to the victory.
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!
The 2018 World Cup in Russia kicks off today and so I bring you a special double-edition of Throwback Thursday looking at the science behind the perfect penalty kick… Fingers crossed the England players listen/read my website and we don’t lose to Germany in a penalty shootout (though let’s be honest we probably will).
Live interview with BBC Radio Cambridgeshire looking at the ‘unsaveable zone’ and the best way to mentally prepare for a penalty.
And if that wasn’t enough, here’s a full description of the ‘Penalty Kick Equation’…
For all of the footballers out there who have missed penalties recently, I thought I would explain the idea of the science behind the perfect penalty a little further, and in particular the maths equation that describes the movement of the ball. On the radio of course I couldn’t really describe the equation, so here it is:
If you’re not a mathematician it might look a little scary, but it’s really not too bad. The term on the left-hand side, D, gives the movement of the ball in the direction perpendicular to the direction in which the ball is kicked. In other words, how much the ball curves either left or right. This is what we want to know when a player is lining up to take a penalty, because knowing how much the ball will curl will tell us where it will end up. To work this out we need to input the variables of the system – basically use the information that we have about the kick and input it into the equation to get the result. It’s like one of those ‘function machines’ that teachers used to talk about at school: I input 4 into the ‘machine’ and it gives me 8, then I put in 5 and I get 10, what will happen if I input 6? The equation above works on the same idea, except we input a few different things and the result tells us how much the ball will curl.
So, what are the inputs on the right-hand side? The symbol p just represents the number 3.141… and it appears in the equation because footballs are round. Anytime we are using circles or spheres in maths, you can bet that p will pop up in the equations – it’s sort of its job. The ball itself is represented by R which gives the ball’s radius, i.e. how big it is, and the ball’s mass is given by m. We might expect that for a smaller ball or a lighter ball the amount it will curl will be different, so it is good to see these things are represented in the equation – sort of a sanity test if you will. The air that the ball is moving through is also important and this is represented by r, which is the density of the air. It will be pretty constant unless it’s a particularly humid or dry day.
Now, what else do you think might have an effect on how much the ball will curl? Well, surely it will depend on how hard the ball is kicked… correct. The velocity of the ball is given by v. The distance the ball has moved in the direction it is kicked is given by x, which is important as the ball will curl more over a long distance than it will if kicked only 1 metre from the goal. For a penalty this distance will be fixed at 12 yards or about 11m. The final variable is w – the angular velocity of the ball. This represents how fast the ball is spinning and you can think of it as how much ‘whip’ has been put on the ball by the player. Cristiano Ronaldo loves to hit them straight so w will be small, but for Beckham – aka the king of curl- w will be much larger. He did of course smash that one straight down the middle versus Argentina in 2002 though…
So there you have it. The maths equation that tells you how much a football will curl based on how hard you hit it and how much ‘whip’ you give it. Footballers often get a bad reputation for perhaps not being the brightest bunch, but every time they step up to take a free kick or a penalty they are pretty much doing this calculation in their head. Maybe they’re not quite so bad after all…