October 23, 2014

Review: The Calculus Diaries by Jennifer Ouellette.

There’s a wonderful anecdote told by Stephen Hawking about the completion of A Brief History of Time. His publisher admonished him not to include any mathematical equations, stating that each subsequent equation would cut the sales of the book by half.(The author compromised at two). And so it goes; would-be science and math popularizers must often contend with publishers who tell them not to ‘scare away’ the public, while science writers think to themselves, “but this is just so cool,” and in the words quoted by this week’s author taken from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, “This could be mathier…”

Which leads us into this week’s fascinating review of The Calculus DiariesHow Math can help you Lose Weight, Win in Vegas, and Survive a Zombie Apocalypse by Jennifer Ouellette. Founder of the blog Cocktail Party Physics, Mrs. Ouellette is no stranger to writing on all things math and physics related, having authored The Physics of the Buffyverse and Black Bodies and Quantum Cats. In the Calculus Diaries, she tackles a subject that perhaps sends many of us screaming into the void during our high school college prep years, as she demonstrates how calculus is woven into our everyday lives. Interspersed throughout are fascinating fortrays into the history of mathematics, definitely tales worth telling. Stop and think; how many famous mathematicians can you name? Probably one of our favorite tales is Nick the Greek’s presentation of Albert Einstein to his Vegas cronies as, “Little Al from Princeton; controls alotta the action out in Jersey…”

Out August 31st from Penguin Press!

Out August 31st from Penguin Press!

But in the end, it’s all about doing the math. The Calculus Diaries doesn’t back down and demystifies much of higher mathematics for the layman; the book would serve a student well as a good segue way into a course or as a companion to Calculus for Dummies. From integrals to derivatives, it’s all here; for those who wish it “could be mathier,” a lengthy appendix of rules including the Top Ten calculus functions and the Calculus of the Living Dead is included. This book took much of the mystery out of calculus for me as I instantly recognized where algebra meets calculus and found a common basis to jump off from.

The author also gives us a good insight into how a lack of math literacy may consistently beat us in our everyday lives. And we’re not just talking about a zombie plague here. From taking on a mortgage to losing weight to beating the odds in Vegas, a failure to understand the math behind the game of life can lead to the house winning, every time. The example of a game of craps was very insightful; the odds are stacked just ever so slightly in the favor (less than 2%) of the house, but that’s just enough to, well, build a city like Las Vegas in the middle of a barren desert. The author even successfully demonstrates that stacking the odds in favor of the players may not lead to short term success as a gambler. Time and time again, we humans simply ‘suck’ (a technical term) at calculating risk and gain. Economic parallels are drawn between the great 17th century tulip mania in Holland and the current real estate market meltdown of today. The author adeptly illustrates the calculus of bubble markets and interest rates. Occasionally, as was the case during the recent crash, someone would raise a math-based objection, but everyone was too busy making a killing to notice… they all scattered, however, at the first sign of a buyer not showing up with the loot!

The current weight craze (you pick the latest one!) is also a good illustration of how our lack of math literacy does us in. Our bodies are good accountants; while we may cry foul and blame metabolism, carbs, glutens, etc. it really is a matter of calories in, calories out. Ideas to beat the Harris-Benedict equation have included everything from fat massagers to “martini diets”, but the reality is it’s hard to top “the eat less and exercise more” mantra.

And don’t forget the zombies. The Calculus Diaries examines the history of biological outbreaks and shows how the exponential growth or decay of infected populations takes off. Should I stay barricaded in this mall and duke it out with said zombies, or flee to safer ground?  The Calculus Diaries will help you make the call as you’re counting up provisions and ammunition.

The release of The Calculus Dairies from Penguin Press this August 31st couldn’t be timelier. As the school year begins and another batch of students begins to feel the dread of math phobia seeping in, this book offers an empowering hope. Read The Calculus Diaries or gift it to that benighted student; it may just inspire a personal mimetic “this is that…” moment!

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  1. [...] CBS TV series NUMB3RS) and some were new to us. Great companions to The Drunkard’s Walk would be The Calculus Diaries and [...]

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