The Naked Mathematician
Tom Crawford (Queens' 2012) shares how he’s using social media to make maths fun and accessible to everyone.
It felt like anything but a job and for the first time I felt that I had found the career for me.
Arriving in Cambridge in 2012 to begin my PhD, I was certain that it was the beginning of a long academic career – I’d even bought myself a tweed jacket for the occasion! Leaving five years later, I find myself diving head first into the world of science communication and this time without any clothes, literally…
I’ve loved maths for as long as I can remember and studying undergraduate mathematics at Oxford only strengthened further my passion for the subject. As the years progressed, 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 – which ultimately led to my PhD topic at Cambridge. This was: where does river water go when it enters the ocean? (If you’re interested in finding out more, I’ve written a series of articles on my website explaining my thesis in simple terms). My research consisted of the triumvirate of experiments, theory and fieldwork. Experiments were conducted in the underground laboratory at the Cambridge maths department, theory in my office and fieldwork in the Southern Ocean. It was on my return from six weeks at sea that I had my first taste of science communication with a two-month internship with the Naked Scientists public engagement team. I would spend each day searching out the most interesting breaking science research, before arranging an interview with the author for BBC radio; it felt like anything but a job and for the first time I felt that I had found the career for me.
From Naked Maths to live television
Once my PhD was completed I was able to secure funding for the 'Naked Maths' video series to run for one year with the Naked Scientists. The videos cover everything from beehives to surfing to artwork to criminals… all with the aim of showing teenagers that maths can be fun and enjoyable. My work was featured on the Oxford Alumni Voices podcast and I was fortunate enough to be able to interview Simon Singh, Hannah Fry and Ian Stewart as part of the Isaac Newton Institute’s 25th anniversary celebrations in Cambridge.
As much as I enjoyed making YouTube videos and podcasts for teenagers, my favourite experience working with the Naked Scientists was being asked by BBC News to explain the significance of the work of Maryam Mirzakhani – the first woman to win the Fields Medal (the maths equivalent of the Nobel Prize) – after her untimely death in July 2017. Despite the unfortunate circumstances, my first experience of live television was thoroughly enjoyable and I knew then that this was something that I wanted to continue to do in the future.
Bringing maths to the masses
All of which ultimately led me to my current position as a mathematics tutor at St Hugh’s College Oxford, where I teach the applied courses to the first and second year undergraduates. This may not sound like television, but the flexibility of the position has allowed me to further enhance my video portfolio, launching my website as well as a YouTube channel where I currently run two ongoing series. In the first, 'Equations Stripped', I strip back the most important equations in maths layer-by-layer; for the second series, in partnership with I Love Mathematics, I answer questions sent in and voted for by students and maths-enthusiasts across the world.
Alongside my online videos, I have also held discussions with several production companies about bringing maths to the masses and, using my new-found freedom, I’ve been able to kick-start two further projects. In Pokémaths I answer scientific questions about Pokémon such as ‘how many Pikachus does it take to power a lightbulb?’ and ‘how many calories does a Charizard need each day to survive?’ which will ultimately be turned into a book; in the newly launched weekly ‘Funbers’ series on BBC radio I tell you the fun facts about numbers that you didn’t realise you’ve secretly always wanted to know!
The emperor’s new clothes
When not teaching and communicating maths, I am kept busy by my role as social media editor with the Journal of Fluid Mechanics (based at Cambridge University Press), as well as working with the access and outreach team at my undergraduate college in Oxford, St John’s, where I help to run the Inspire Programme, which aims to raise the aspirations of pupils at non-selective state schools in the London Boroughs of Harrow and Ealing. I have also recently presented at conferences in India and the USA, and hold regular talks at schools and universities, including for the Archimedeans in Cambridge (the University Mathematical Society) and the 'Maths in Action' series at Warwick University, where I faced my biggest audience yet of 1200 A-level students.
My links to Cambridge remain strong and my time spent there during my PhD was both enjoyable and informative, with the opportunities with which I was presented allowing me to find my true passion of science communication. Without the experience and inspiration provided by the Naked Scientists, I might still be wearing my tweed jacket, rather than trying on the emperor’s new clothes as the Naked Mathematician.
Tom has a PhD in Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics and attended Queens’ College. You can find all of Tom’s outreach work on his website and you can follow him on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube.
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This article has been written by Tom Crawford and the opinions expressed are those of the author.