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.

TomCrawford
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.

Funbers 22, 23 and 24

Fun facts about numbers that you didn’t realise you’ve secretly always wanted to know…

22 – TWENTY-TWO

Coming in hot, 22 happens to be one of my favourite numbers – if you divide it by 7 you get about 3.142, which is a handy way of getting close to pi without having to remember all the digits! Then of course there’s Joseph Heller’s famous novel Catch-22. In the book, Catch-22 is the Air Force policy which says that bomber pilots can only stop flying planes if they are declared insane. But like the name suggests, there’s a catch. Catch-22 says that asking for a mental evaluation to get declared insane is proof that you aren’t in fact insane. So technically, there’s a way to get out of flying more bombing runs… but if you try it, you get sent right back out in the next plane!

Catch22-plane

Twenty-two also pops up in the kitchen. Normally, if you are slicing a pizza using 6 cuts, you’d do it neatly and end up with 12 even slices – much like the numbers on a clock face. But if you were a lazy pizza chef and just sliced randomly, you could end up cutting slices in half and ending up with more pieces. And it turns out, the most pieces you can end up with after 6 cuts is, you guessed it, 22!

On a darker note, 22 was also the lucky number of the Haitian voodoo dictator Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier. Papa Doc started studying voodoo folklore to spread rumours that he had supernatural powers, which let him rule through fear. But eventually, he started believing the rumours himself. He would only go outside his palace on the 22nd of the month, because he thought he was guarded by voodoo spirits on that lucky day. He even claimed to have killed JFK, whose assassination was on the 22nd of November 1963, supposedly by stabbing a voodoo doll of him 2222 times that morning…

1963haiti_duvalier

23 – TWENTY-THREE

For 23 we’re going back to maths, and specifically prime numbers. A prime number remember, is one that can only be divided by itself and one without giving any remainder. Twenty-three has the unique property of being the smallest prime number which is not a ‘twin prime’ – that is a prime number which does not have another one within two spaces of it on the number-line. For example, 3, 5 and 7 are all close friends, while 11 and 13 go together. 17 is next to 19, but the nearest prime number to 23 is either four places below at 19, or six places above at 29, making it the smallest prime number to not have the ‘twin’ property.

Twenty-three is also big for birthdays. Not because the age of 23 is particularly special (although being the age mentioned in my favourite song – Blink 182’s ‘what’s my age again?’ – I do have a soft spot for it), but because of its appearance in the ‘Birthday Paradox’. The complete explanation is a little too long for Funbers, but in short it says that if you choose 23 people at random and put them in a room together, there is a greater than 50% chance that 2 of them share the same birthday. If that sounds too crazy to believe, check out a full explanation here from one of my students who applied it to the 23-man England squad for the 2018 Football World Cup. Now to enjoy some classic pop punk: “Nobody likes you when you’re 23…”

24 – TWENTY-FOUR

Who remembers Avogadro’s constant for the number of atoms contained in one mole of a substance from high school Chemistry? No, me neither. But, a great way to approximate it is using 24 factorial – or 24! in mathematical notation. The factorial function (or exclamation mark) tells you to multiply all of the numbers less than 24 together. So, 24! is equal to 24 x 23 x 22 x 21 x 20 x 19 x … x 2 x 1, also known as an incredibly large number. It’s about 3% larger than Avogadro’s constant, but certainly easier than remembering 6.02214076 x 1023.

backgammon-789623_1920

Twenty-four also represents the number of carats in pure gold, the number of letters in the Greek alphabet (ancient and modern) and the number of points on a backgammon board. Mathematically, 24 is the smallest number with exactly 8 numbers that divide it – can you name them? And, it’s equal to exactly 4 factorial: 4! = 4 x 3 x 2 x 1 = 24. Last but not least, where would we be without the 24 hour day – or to be precise 24 hours plus or minus a few milliseconds to be completely exact…

Day length
Yesterday 24 hours -0.46 ms
Today 24 hours -0.39 ms
Tomorrow 24 hours -0.35 ms
Shortest 2019 24 hours -0.95 ms
Longest 2019 24 hours +1.67 ms
Last Year Average 24 hours +0.69 ms

 

What are the chances that two England teammates share a Birthday?

Cast your mind back to the summer of 2018… we saw the warmest ever weather in the UK, Brexit was not yet a complete and utter disaster, and seemingly against all the odds the England football team reached the semi-finals of the World Cup for the first time since 1990. No doubt the team had a huge celebration together afterwards – but it wouldn’t be the first time that two of them have celebrated an occasion at the same time. As well as playing together at the heart of England’s defence, Manchester City duo Kyle Walker and John Stones also share the same birthday! Stones was born on 28th May 1994, making him 24 years old; Walker was born on the same day in 1990, meaning that he is exactly four years older than his teammate. How strange! Or is it…?

John_Stones_2018-06-13_1 Kyle_Walker

On the face of it, it seems quite surprising that in an England squad of just 23 players, two of them happen to share a birthday. However, as we’re about to see, this isn’t a freakish coincidence – maths says that it’s quite likely! What we’re talking about here is commonly known as the birthday problem: if there are a group of people of a certain size, what is the likelihood that at least two of them have the same birthday?

Let’s start by saying that we have a group of N people, and assume that birthdays are equally likely on every day of the year. (There is some evidence to suggest that this isn’t the case for top athletes; some say that they tend to be born early in the school year, such as around September in England. This is because they are slightly older than the other children in the year, and so they have a slight head-start in their physical development. However, we don’t want to make things too complicated, so we’ll ignore that for now.)

The easiest way to think about the problem is to first try to work out what the probability is that none of the N people share a birthday. Suppose our N people walk into a room, that is empty at first, one at a time. When the first person walks in, it’s obvious that they don’t share a birthday with anyone else in the room, because there isn’t anyone else. Therefore, they have the maximum probability of not sharing a birthday with anyone else in the room, which is 1.

Now think of the second person who walks in. The only way that they could share a birthday with someone in the room is if it happens to be exactly the same day as the first person. That means there is a 1 in 365 chance that they do share a birthday, so there is a 364 in 365 chance that they don’t.

Suppose that the first two birthdays don’t match, and then the third person walks in. They now have 2 days that they can’t share a birthday with, so there are 363 possible choices out of 365. Because we assumed that the first two didn’t match, we multiply the probabilities, so now the chance that none of them share a birthday is (364/365) * (363/365).

We can repeat this process until we get to our final person, number N. For example, the fourth person has 3 birthdays that they cannot share, so we multiply by a chance of 362/365; the fifth person has 4 days to avoid, so we include a probability of 361/365… By the time the Nth person walks in, there are N-1 people already in the room, so there are N-1 days that their birthday cannot fall on. This leaves them with 365-(N-1) possibilities out of 365.

To work out the total probability, we multiply all of these terms together which gives the likelihood that none of the N people share a birthday as

1 * (364/365) * (363/365) * (362/365) * … * ((365-(N-1))/365).

You might be thinking that this still looks like quite a big probability that none of them share a birthday, because all of the terms are very close to 1. But, if we try some values of N in a calculator, then it tells a very different story. (The percentages are calculated by finding the probability from the equation above and multiplying by 100.)

When N = 10, we get an 88% chance that none of them share a birthday. However, this drops down to 59% when there are N = 20 people. When we get to N = 23, the number of players in the England squad, the probability reaches just under 50%. That means that, incredibly, the likelihood that at least two of the 23 people share a birthday is just bigger than 50%!

So, in a random group of 23 people, it’s more likely than not that two of them share a birthday! This seems very strange at first; surely you’d need more than 23 people for a shared birthday to be more likely than not?! This is why the problem is commonly known as the birthday paradox – it might be very hard to get your head around, but the maths doesn’t lie!

Perhaps, in order to convince ourselves, we should look at some real-life examples. This is where the World Cup squads come into play: each team is restricted to bringing 23 players to the tournament. (We’ve seen that number before…) If our calculations above are correct, then if we picked any one of the World Cup squads, there would be roughly a 50:50 chance that at least two of the squad members share a birthday, which means that out of all of the squads that went to Russia, we would expect about half of them to have a birthday match. Well, let’s take a look…

Of the 32 teams, which were divided into 8 groups of 4, the following teams have at least one pair of players who share a birthday:

Group A Russia
Group B Iran, Morocco, Portugal, Spain
Group C Australia, France, Peru
Group D Croatia, Nigeria
Group E Brazil, Costa Rica
Group F Germany, South Korea
Group G England
Group H Poland

So, not only is there at least one team in every group with a birthday match, but if we count the total, there are 16 squads with a shared birthday pair – exactly half of the teams! The experimental results have matched up with the mathematical theory to perfection. Hopefully that’s enough to convince you that our calculations were indeed sound!

A slightly different question that you might ask is as follows: if I am in a group with a certain number of people, what are the chances that at least one of them shares my birthday? Is it the same idea? What we have worked out above is the probability that any two people in the room share a birthday (or rather, we worked out the opposite, but we can find the right answer from our working). Note that the pair doesn’t necessarily include you; it’s a lot more likely that it’s some other pair in the group.

In order to work out the answer to this similar sounding question, we work the other way around again, by calculating the probability that none of the N people share my birthday. For each of the N people, there is only one birthday that they cannot have, and that is mine (14th November, in case you were wondering), which means there are 364 out of 365 possibilities for each person. We no longer care whether their birthdays match up; we only care if they match with mine. So each person has a 364/365 chance of not sharing my birthday; and the overall probability is just 364/365 * 364/365 * … * 364/365, N times, which we write as (364/365)N.

Once again, we can plug some values of N into a calculator: N = 10 gives a 97% chance that no-one else has my birthday. For N = 50 the probability is still very high: there is an 87% chance that none of these 50 people have the same birthday as me. N = 100 gives 76%; N = 200 gives 58%; you have to go all the way to N = 253 before the probability dips below 50%, and it becomes more likely than not that at least one person will celebrate their birthday with me.

Applying this idea to all 736 players (32 squads of 23 players) involved in the World Cup, we should expect around 3 of them to have been born on the same day as me – 14th November. And I am very happy to confirm that France’s Samuel Umtiti, Switzerland’s Roman Burki, and Belgium’s Thomas Vermaelen all have what is undoubtedly the best birthday of the year… Two similar problems with two very different solutions!

Thomas_Vermaelen_2018 Samuel_Umtiti_2018AUT_vs._SUI_2015-11-17_(250)

You can check which footballers share a birthday with you at www.famousbirthdays.com/date/monthDD-soccerplayer.html, where you enter the month in words and the day in numbers (no preceding zero required).

Kai Laddiman 

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