Book Review – The Calculus Diaries
In teaching astronomy and physics to general education students, I’ve come across my fair share of students with a math anxiety. It’s really unfortunate. Not only are the top paying jobs in America highly dependent on mathematical reasoning, but a fear of math can prevent a deeper appreciation of Nature. This is the point being made in The Calculus Diaries: How Math can Help you Lose Weight, Win in Vegas, and Survive a Zombie Apocalypse by Jennifer Ouellette.
Ouellette is a self proclaimed owner of a math phobia, or at least she had one before writing her book. The Calculus Diaries is a series of self contained narratives on how math, specifically calculus, has historically shaped our culture, and even how it’s prevalent in what we do on a daily basis. What’s amazing and so inviting about this book is that the descriptions are done without the use of mathematical expressions. Instead Ouellette, a professional science writer, uses easily understandable proses to convey the often difficult concepts of derivatives, integrals, tangents, and even the brachistochrone.
For those like me, that also want to see the equations, there are two appendices chalk full of the mathematical expressions that support the main material. However, the appendices are written with the calculus student in mind, not the science professor. This doesn’t mean the target audience is necessarily the college student suffering through calculus. This book is really for anyone interested in learning how calculus really works, and recognizing what’s it’s really used for (as opposed to those tables and tables of integrals found at the back of a calculus textbook).
Naturally, the three topics listed in the subtitled (dieting, gambling, and zombies) are included as an attention getter. I won’t lie. I wanted very much to learn how to survive a zombie apocalypse using math—and now know. But there’s so much more to the book besides these there topics (which do not disappoint). Written between the lines, the book demonstrates how a math phobia can be approached by breaking through the abstract variables and crazy mathematical symbols to present relatable examples of calculus. (I know, the zombie apocalypse really hasn’t happened … yet.) As Ouellette describes Archimedes eureka moment, the development of statistical analysis to gambling, learning how to surf, and other math related topics, you get a sense of how she was able to come to terms her own math anxiety. It seems that seeing math in action was the key for her. Maybe this is how calculus should be taught, with regular field trips to Las Vegas, amusement parks, and the gym.
Besides interesting applications of calculus, I found the historical context by which the examples were presented to be entertaining. I never knew about the seventeenth century Holland tulip trade let alone how similar it was to our twenty-first century American housing crisis. I definitely won’t look at tulips this same anymore. Also, coincidently I read about Archimedes’ death ray in The Calculus Diaries just days before I heard about President Obama’s challenge to Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman, the hosts of Mythbusters.
Overall, I really enjoyed reading The Calculus Diaries. Even though I’m a survivor of multiple calculus classes—and a few other math courses as well—I was still a student reading this book.