David Sumpter creates structure in apparent randomness

“Football is filled with numbers, patterns and shapes. It’s a goldmine for a mathematician”, says David Sumpter.

Photograph: Mikael Wallerstedt

Can algorithms really be exciting? Sure, if they’re packaged properly. When David Sumpter, professor of applied mathematics, gave a lecture at Oxford Mathematics, he drew the largest ever audience after Stephen Hawking. This summer, he hopes to redeem Hammarby supporters at Tele2 Arena.

Surely you remember the moment when Zlatan inaugurated Friends Arena with the incredible bicycle kick that resulted in his and Sweden’s fourth goal against England? “Magic, magic!” cried a top morning paper, surely because we had seen some truly magical and artistic football. But might that moment also have contained a scientific dimension?

Almost exactly 100 years before that evening in Solna, Frey Svensson, professor of psychiatry at Uppsala University, coined the concept chess of the open field. In the same essay, he proposed that intelligence is involved in everything in the game of football, and wished that “Swedish universities would take more interest in it”. He would not be heeded until 2016, but when professor of applied mathematics David Sumpter published the book Soccermatics: Mathematical Adventures in the Beautiful Game, many people gained a fresh perspective on the game.

“Football is filled with numbers, patterns and shapes. It’s a goldmine for a mathematician, and with the right model we can explain how and when things happen. Sure, a lot is determined by coincidence, but almost every third event can be influenced. The impact of Soccermatics has been incredible and today, we’re collaborating with FC Barcelona and with Hammarby IF, where one of my former Master’s students and I are working part-time to develop their game strategy.”

David Sumpter’s premiere season with the Stockholm team culminated in third place in the Allsvenskan season, after which the parties quickly agreed to continue their shared journey. Sumpter’s work is funded by the Swedish Foundation for Strategic Research and, even if the path to the Swedish Championship gold seems open, some may wonder whether a perfectly played football match truly justifies funds that could have been used for more traditional knowledge of more benefit to society.

“It’s a completely relevant criticism that isn’t entirely easy to answer. A few years ago, I was involved in a study that showed how applause are guided by group dynamics and our fear of doing the wrong thing, rather than by the quality of the performance. The results were published internationally, but ultimately, many people wondered why we should pay researchers for a study like that. I’ve dedicated a lot of time to this particular aspect of my work and reached the conclusion that the best research is research that manages to balance scientific urgency with the challenges that engage society.”

David Sumpter defines himself as a social problem-solver. Using mathematics as a tool, he tackles issues that pique his curiosity. From the seemingly random, he creates statistical structures that help us understand the world. As a doctoral student in Manchester, he studied the organisation of bee colonies and how the insects interact as a group. Twenty years later, David has developed formulas for describing everything from the mechanisms governing housing segregation to how depression among young people spreads socially.

“I’ve reached the privileged position in which I have the funding to do essentially whatever I want, and for the last four years, my group has had Fun Fridays, where we only work on questions that interest us. One week we’ll explore polarisation in Ukrainian politics, and the next we’ll create simulations of how fish move in schools. A lot of this work has culminated in more comprehensive projects and these Fridays have led me to take the next step in the direction of popular science.”

With his gaze lifted beyond academic horizons, David has also sharpened his focus on the University’s third task: to spread his knowledge in society, also known as outreach. In the op-ed article I started caring about what people actually cared about, he questions the fondness in academia and scientific journals for time-consuming writing processes, which means years can pass before any impact occurs. Instead, he advocates for expanded investment in young researchers and urgent research with a fast and broad impact.

“The perfect example is Gapminder, the app that gave Hans Rosling a platform to communicate what he knows to the world. But more than ten years after his breakthrough, there is still no model for seizing upon the next generation’s Rosling before whoever that may be turns 65. Personally, I envisage creating a mathematical media room, where researchers help journalists to analyse the scope, dissemination and influence of specific problems. We’ve already applied for funding and in this day and age, with talk of fake news and political attacks on the media, I believe this is a relevant and important need that science can and should fill.”

David Sumpter – facts:

Profession Professor of applied mathematics at Uppsala University

On the nightstand A book by Rachel Cusk, the best author ever, in which she explores how middle-aged men and women talk about the world.

A famous person I’ve met Spontaneously, I think of Hans Rosling and Janne Andersson, with whom I’ve had interesting conversations.

As soon as I have a day off I write books, right now with the working title The 10 Equations that Rule Your Life & How You Can Use Them Too.

Finally, I want to remind everyone not to bring their work home. I love spending time with my family and a match of futsal!

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