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The Calculus Diaries: How Math Can Help You Lose Weight, Win in Vegas, and Survive a Zombie Apocalypse

Jennifer Ouellette
Penguin Books
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
[Reviewed by
Amy Shell-Gellasch
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Jennifer Ouellette is an accomplished science writer with a passion for physics, yet an admitted aversion to mathematics. An impulse internet buy of the DVD Calculus Made Clear (by the MAA’s own Michael Starbird) did not change her life, even though watching Michael in action is a moving experience. But it did move her profoundly along the line from avowed mathphobe to admitted, though perhaps grudgingly, math appreciator. That DVD launched her on a quest to once and for all, learn calculus! The result of her odyssey is The Calculus Diaries: How Math Can Help you Lose Weight, Win in Vegas, and Survive a Zombie Apocalypse.

The Calculus Diaries is not a diary of her more than a year long indulgence in everything derivative, nor does it teach calculus. Only once does she mention that the derivative of x2 is 2x. It is an armchair book intended for the reader who is not comfortable with math but might be curious about all the hubbub over calculus. It is a fun-loving, humorous, irreverent and off-beat integral of how calculus might help you in life. As the subtitle states, she explores everything from shooting craps in Vegas to modeling zombie invasions.

To be honest, the amount of page space allotted in each chapter to the actual uses of calculus is slim, and at times are a stretch. For example, optimizing your own personal calorie versus cost functions to help you lose weight seemed a bit contrived to me. And her token attempt at describing Fourier analysis was weak at best. But I doubt even Fourier could explain Fourier to the lay public in two pages with no equations. And, true to any math book for the general public, the very few equations that do appear constitute a set of measure zero. However, the first appendix does give a good race through the relevant mathematical concepts (key graphs, functions, limits, etc.) needed to approach the calculus. The second appendix then goes on to give a few simple examples of applications of derivatives and integrals, but strictly using derivative and integral tables. At no place does she state the power rule, for example. But then again, she never said she would teach the reader calculus, and she does not. But she does allow the reader to start to feel the power and uses of calculus. And through her knowledge of physics, she does actually teach some basic physical concepts.

What I really enjoyed about this book was the author’s style and the interesting, informative, and at times bizarre discussions leading up to a use of calculus. For example, from the discussion of how to analyze disease vectors I learned that in 2005 an intentionally programmed zombie virus in the wildly popular on-line game World of Warcraft (WoW for those of you in the know) triggered an unplanned contagious infection to game characters not supposed to be vulnerable. This alone is very interesting. But even more interesting is that WoW players exhibited all the same responses that are seen in the human population during emergencies. For example, some players stayed and tried to help others, some ran away from the infected areas and spread the disease, while some thrill seekers actually ran toward the area. And one noble soul remained in the infected area to provide minute by minute updates. This is an example of the interesting and quirky, though minimally or non mathematical, discussions in the book.

As Ouellette states, to learn calculus, you have to get a book and do the math. Or as she quotes the character Tallahassee from the recent movie Zombieland, “Time to nut up or shut up.” There is no royal road to it. But for any non-mathematician inclined to learn why calculus is so powerful, and have fun while they learn, I highly recommend The Calculus Diaries. For mathematicians, give it to anyone who looks at you with the eyes of a zombie when you mention at a party how important calculus is. For me, any math book that can successfully quotes Paul Halmos, Mark Twain and Woody Harrelson is bound to have some surprises in it. And Ouellette does not fail to entertain. Perhaps The Calculus Diaries will bring a few calculus zombies back from the world of the “un-math”.



Amy Shell-Gellasch is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor of Mathematics at Beloit College in Wisconsin. After receiving her DA in mathematics from the University of Illinois at Chicago (2000), she was named an R. L. Moore Project NeXT Fellow in 2000 and spent three years as a post-doctorate at the United States Military Academy where she conducted historical research with Fred Rickey. Her focus is the History of Mathematics and Its Uses in Teaching. For example, her most recent publication is the MAA Notes volume Hands On History which provides ways for teachers to make and use historical models in the mathematics classroom. She is very involved in the MAA and the HOM SIGMAA. She currently chairs the MAA Committee on SIGMAAs. She co-founded and is current Programs Chair of the HOM SIGMMA and founded the HOM SIGMAA Student Paper contest. She has organized numerous meetings and sessions to include the 2009 JMM MAA short course, Exploring the Great Books of Mathematics.

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