Review: Mathematical T-shirt

A summer essential or an embarrassment risk on the streets of Ibiza?


Maths ≠ Rocks. A bold statement wherever you go

I was recently lucky enough to pick up a free mathematical T-shirt from the University of Essex. Following the success earlier this year of my mathematical socks review, they will surely be happy to see their T-shirt under the spotlight this time.

Mathematical content

1. Calculator

A strong first image: pi is displayed to 11 decimal places, and correctly rounded at the end. But given there is no pi button, someone has had to type this in themselves. Is this a worthy use of time? Also note the lack of a square root button, a function common on even the weakest calculator models. Solid memory functionality as well.

However, the elephant in the room is the large number of digits on the screen compared to the limited button set. Of course, standard calculators only come with eight digits and this is hard to ignore.

Maths grade: B. Good idea but poorly executed.

2. Equation

$x = -2$.

Maths grade: C. Possibly challenging for a Year 7 student.

3. Delta del-squared f(x)

Finally some harder mathematics! The Laplacian can be represented by either $\Delta$ or $\nabla^2$ and the choice to do both here is a little unorthodox. Nonetheless, this double Laplacian
\[\Delta\nabla^2 f(\boldsymbol{x}) = \nabla^4 f(\boldsymbol{x}),\]
set equal to zero, can be found haunting the work of many an applied maths PhD student.

Naturally the $x$ really ought to be a vector $\boldsymbol{x}$, and the f is really too big, but otherwise…

Maths grade: A. The conical nature of the $\nabla$ suggests cylindrical coordinates which makes this a good challenge.

4. Abacus

Do you know how to use an abacus? Well that’s OK, neither do they. On the plus side, there are ten beads per line which is pretty standard. But beads in the middle of the lines?! Lunacy! Perhaps even more damning here is the lost potential for a good 5318008 joke.

Maths grade: D. Even the ancients would be stumped.

5. Graph and compasses

Perhaps this pair of compasses has been used to draw this graph. Actually, this is unlikely because the legs of the compass are different lengths, which you can tell below when the red, left leg line is shorter than the green, right leg line. One would have considerable trouble trying to use this apparatus.

Looking at the graph, traditionally the numbers, on the y-axis, say, line up with the little markings, but here the approach is a little more relaxed. What this graph is of is a little hard to say. The axes are probably irrelevant. It looks a bit like the first two terms of a Fourier transform of something, but that first peak seems a little too pointy to be a smooth function.

Maths grade: C. Perhaps the compasses and graph are not related at all.

6. Ruler

It is a matter of some debate whether the natural numbers, $\mathbb{N}$, includes 0 or not. What is not up for debate is that rulers really ought to start with 0. Also can you name a unit which is commonly split into ninths? (Count the little lines…)

Maths grade: F.

7. Rocks

Jesus Christ, Marie, they’re minerals.

Joke grade: D. No-one is still watching Breaking Bad.


Grey T-shirts have never gone out of style. Pair with some colourful shorts for a well-balanced look.

Fashion grade: A


Only comes in one size (large), which will not please at least half the market, and is not particularly flattering if you want to show off your beach body. That said, this bagginess allows for the ‘mathematics’ to be more easily read.

Fit grade: B


Camden High Street

Lovely horrible Camden High Street. Image: public domain

Surprisingly light, making it ideal for hot weather. I took the T-shirt out for a walk up and down the fashionable Camden High Street. It was an uncomfortable journey, mostly because this area is always full of tourists who think that Camden is as trendy as it was in the nineties, vying with large amounts of traffic trying to leave London by the north. However, the inexpensive, thin fabric kept me cool and well aerated.

Utility grade: A

Overall review

Light and inoffensive on first view. But if you are going to take it out for a walk, expect ridicule for its poor mathematical content, so probably best for light housework during the summer months. If you’re looking for a more mathematical T-shirt, you can order one from Chalkdust.

Adam is an assistant professor at Durham University, where he investigates weird, non-Newtonian fluids. If he’s not talking about the maths of chocolate fountains he is probably thinking about fonts, helping Professor Dirichlet answer your personal problems, and/or listening to BBC Radio 2.

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