August 31, 2010
Though I was a very good at math in school, I usually found the subject incredibly boring, so much so that I often slept through class (teachers didn’t mind as long as I aced the exams). The one exception was a college math course for biologists that gave us real-world problems like figuring out the number of false positives and negatives if 100 people were given a tuberculosis test. But more often it was like the calculus class in which we had to analyze a fictional Houdini escape trick. It was all theoretical, with rarely any relation to the tangible world around me. Math was dull.
It doesn’t have to be that way, though, as Jennifer Ouellette demonstrates in her new book The Calculus Diaries: How Math Can Help You Lose Weight, Win in Vegas, and Survive a Zombie Apocalypse. There are plenty of opportunities in the world around us to find interesting examples of math, and especially calculus. Ouellette explains how to use calculus to analyze your odds of winning at craps and why your best option is simply not to play. She examines the Thermodynamics Diet, in which you can use calculus (or at least your own judgment) to optimize your diet and exercise regime so that you burn more calories than you consume. She links cholera, the black plague and zombies. (Okay, I’ll admit that last one falls into the fictional category that troubled me so much in school. But she links it to disease epidemiology. And beside, zombies are way more fun than Houdini tricks, at least in my world.)
The book has plenty of math and science history, and plain history itself—William the Conqueror makes an appearance—along with references to pop culture (the Mythbusters) and literature (the Aeneid). There’s a trove of material here for math teachers hoping to catch the attention of non-math students. Historical problems in math and physics show up regularly as do more recent analyses by modern scientists (there’s an actual study that goes with the zombie discussion).
The appendix includes many of the equations and graphs discussed in the text. However, I found that inadequate as I read through the book. What I really wanted was a workbook that would guide me along through the problems and scenarios that Ouellette posed in her writing. But that’s what surprised me: the book made me want to do the math, to work through the equations with a pencil and calculator, to graph out the curves and see for myself how all these things fit together.
I’m not sure I would have pursued math any more than I did if the teachers had made it this interesting in class. But perhaps I wouldn’t have slept through quite so many hours of it.
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