Book: The Calculus Diaries
Author: Jennifer Ouellette
Release: August 31, 2010
Length: 336 pages (Paperback)
Rating: A- (95 / 100)
The Calculus Diaries is a must for math nerd, geeks grappling with high school (or college) math, and trivia buffs alike. The idea of learning math recreationally may sound ludicrous, but don’t let it put you off. Ouellette delivers a fascinating series of math lessons so neatly couched in humor and the sort of odd historical minutia that keep you riveted to the History Channel that the math almost becomes beside the point.
Pros: Lots of fun. Very educational. Very easy reading.
Cons: The book opts for covering a large number of topics briefly, rather than a few topics in depth.
In Brief: If you’re anything like the rest of us, you probably spent a lot of time as a kid asking yourself when you would ever need what you were learning math class. Well, Jennifer Ouellette is here with a new book to tell you exactly what you can do with all of that math and why.
Official: “Kiss My Math” meets “A Tour of the Calculus.” Jennifer Ouellette never took math in college, mostly because she-like most people-assumed that she wouldn’t need it in real life. But then the English-major-turned-award-winning-science-writer had a change of heart and decided to revisit the equations and formulas that had haunted her for years. The Calculus Diaries is the fun and fascinating account of her year spent confronting her math phobia head on. With wit and verve, Ouellette shows how she learned to apply calculus to everything from gas mileage to dieting, from the rides at Disneyland to shooting craps in Vegas-proving that even the mathematically challenged can learn the fundamentals of the universal language.
I have to admit, when Jennifer Ouellette’s book The Calculus Diaries arrived on my doorstep, I was a bit dubious. Voluntarily reading about math? No one ever told me there was homework involved in running a blog.
At first, I sort of just let the book sit there for a while. There are exactly two things I learned in high school. The first is that girls do not consider McDonalds to be a romantic venue for a date. The second is that doing math too near to my bed time is going to lead to nightmare in which I’m not wearing pants. Who needs that kind of stress in their life?
Still I couldn’t just ignore it. It’s got zombies in the title! Damn, is that sneaky. Luring people into math books with promises of zombies is right up there with the way girls trick boys into basic hygene practices with the vague temptations of first base action. (Wait. Did I learn three things in high scool?)
Eventually, I folded, and to my surprise, it didn’t take me long to warm up to this book at all. See, I sort of have a thing about geeky trivia – as you might have noticed from the blog chocked full of history trivia and quotes, and this book is lousy with math and science trivia. Scratch that. It’s overflowing with math and science trivia. The word lousy should in no way, shape, or form be associated with this book, partly because that’s no way to land more free books from Penguin, but mainly because this is the most entertaining piece of non-ficition I’ve read since Freakonomics.
Ouellette takes a conversational stroll through the whys and wherefores of calculus, breaking down the reasons behind all of the those torturous hours of math homework you slogged through in high school in a very relatable manner. She explains very simply how the science of calculus came into existence. She illustrates ways in which calculus can actually be useful to real people in everyday situations, and, even more importantly, she points out where our math illiteracy can become detrimental to our well-being. Then, she goes a step further by illustrating how calculus could be used in fictional situations. Along the way, she touches on an enormous breadth of topics, such as the use of World of Warcraft to study epidemiology, surfing, social networking, the improbability of winning in Vegas over the long-run, how today’s housing bubble is like the great 17th century tulip mania in Holland, and how our failure to do the math is counter-productive to dieting.
It helps that the author is not a mathematician herself. In fact, the entire premise of her book is that she’s sharing what she’s learned on her own voyage of mathematical exploration. She frequently expresses her own consternation over the trials and tribulations of calculus, which makes her a very sympathetic narrator. At the same time, she is quite adept at explaining herself simply.
No, The Calculus Diaries isn’t going to transform you into a a math wiz. This isn’t actually a textbook. In fact, most of the book’s equations are safely contained within an appendix at the back of the book, where Ouellette goes into the specifics of how to carry out the most common calculus tasks. However, The Calculus Diaries does succeed in imparting an appreciation (if begrudging) of just how useful calculus can be to the average Joe and dispelling the shroud of inscrutability surrounding the entire subject.
All in all, this in a very rewarding bit of reading, perfect for a passing a lazy afternoon. Plus, it’s bound to impress passersby more than carrying around the latest paranormal romance novel.
Penguin Books sent The Great Geek Manual a complimentary advance review copy of The Calculus Diaries. We are very grateful, but it did not effect the outcome of our review.
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