Jennifer Oullette is on a mission: she wants to make calculus cool, or at least, cooler. Less threatening. She fails, but that’s not entirely her fault, is it? Come on, kids, this is calculus. Right.
The Calculus Diaries is snappily—almost desperately—subtitled How Math Can Help You Lose Weight, Win in Vegas, and Survive a Zombie Apocalypse. There’s nothing that screams “I’m trying to be hip!” quite so stridently as zombies (at least this year), and that’s not even going into the false claim regarding Vegas: a quick review of Chapter Three (“Casino Royale”) reminds us that—aha!—one can’t beat the odds at Vegas. Ever. This is a mathematical fact, given the way the games are set up. (You might win for a while, but sooner or later the averages will inevitably catch up with you.) What’s the proof? Mm—calculus. So in theory, calculus could help you avoid losing at Vegas, if it convinced you not to play at all. But that’s not quite the same as helping you win, is it? As for that secret, math-derived formula for beating the house—it doesn’t exist.
To be fair to Ouellette, she has chosen a more or less impossible task: to strip calculus free of its jargon and make it accessible to the rest of us. Trouble is, math is jargon, more or less; any language is, and math is no exception; it’s a set of shorthand symbols used to express complicated ideas, and can’t be explained in a few easy sentences. This doesn’t preclude Oullette from trying. Referring to a curved line plotted on a graph, she tells us that “the area under a curve corresponds to the integral, while the slope of the tangent line to a point on that curve corresponds to the derivative.” Raise your hand if you understand that.
And yes, she has gone over tangent lines and derivatives and integrals, but somehow these explanations manage to illuminate very little. Later, when we are trying to compute the speed of a moving car at a particular point between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, I’m baffled to read such sentences as, “With the derivative, I can figure out my car’s speed based on how its position changes over time. With the integral, I should be able to determine how far we’ve traveled in the Prius.” Apparently this is supposed to clear everything up.
Listen, I’m not a dumb guy—just ask my mom!—but reading this book makes me feel about as smart as chalk. I sympathize wholeheartedly with the anguish of mathematicaly inclined people who feel annoyed when the rest of us gleefully declare that we can’t do simple math or balance our checkbooks; would we be so insouciant about being illiterate? Of course not—and the need to understand math concepts is arguably as important as literacy, at least for someone trying to figure out interest rates or decide on a mortgage.
The problem with this book is that Ouellette promises to take the mystery out of calculus, but then throws sentences at us like: “Then it is simply a matter of taking a derivative of each variable separately—this is called partial differentiation, or taking a partial derivative—and finding the value that sends both to zero.” The promise, in other words, is one she can’t keep—calculus is confusing, it is involved, it does require methodical study and disciplined effort. It can’t be understood by reading this chatty chapter two about throwing dice or buying a house or fighting zombies.
Oh yeah. Zombies. Listen, I like zombies as much as the next guy, but they’ve been done to death, so to speak. (And as of this writing, The Walking Dead hasn’t even premiered, yet.) Is it really necessary to talk about hackwork like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies? In what amounts to a 30-page ad for that breathtakingly dumbass book, Ouellette tries to show how calculus can be used to determine the rate of an epidemic’s spread of infection—a zombie plague, for example—as well as the death rate required to avoid the elimination of the human species. It’s all amusing enough, but the real-world applications in epidemiology are far more interesting. Why not just stick with those? Well, then we wouldn’t get the sexy word “zombies” on the cover.
The news isn’t all bad. Ouellette is a lively, entertaining writer, and she can turn a witty phrase well. In many ways she’s a delightful guide—I just find myself wishing over and over that she was guiding me someplace else. She seems to feel this herself, hence the long, sometimes meandering but perfectly enjoyable detours into the history of craps and gaming theory, of house-hunting and fitness training and The World of Warcraft.
These diverse topics, and many others, are discussed for pages at a time. Then, like a teacher who remembers Oh-oh, this is supposed to tie into the lesson, Ouellette reins herself in and starts banging away about integers and derivatives and whatever.
Full disclosure: it’s my belief that book reviews reveal as much about the reviewer as about the book being discussed, and that is certainly the case here. It’s perfectly possible that someone suffering from mathphobia might pick this book up and—Eureka!—have an epiphany that had heretofore been elusive. If so, I salute that person. All I can say is this: I’m the target demographic for this book—educated, literate, open-minded but pretty darn shaky on the conceptual side of things. This book was supposed to clarify what all this math stuff was about, and instead left me feeling more than ever that it’s all a secret club I’ll never be smart enough to join.
Wasn’t crazy about the zombies, either.