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Betsy's Non-Blog

I'm not a blogger. I just love to read.

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Karin Slaughter
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind
Yuval Noah Harari Dr
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The Calculus Diaries: How Math Can Help You Lose Weight, Win in Vegas, and Survive a Zombie Apocalypse

The Calculus Diaries: How Math Can Help You Lose Weight, Win in Vegas, and Survive a Zombie Apocalypse - Jennifer Ouellette This book is well written and many of her stories are enjoyable, but on the whole it was a disappointment.

I loved math as a teenager. I would stay after school with a couple friends to do impromptu math competitions. When I got to college, I initially planned to major in math. But after my third semester of calculus, when I received a grade of “satisfactory” rather than what I was used to, I changed my major to French. I had loved algebra – I just “got it”. And geometry, though it wasn't quite as much fun, made sense to me. But calculus just didn't make sense. I could memorize the formulas and rules and solve most of the problems, but I didn't get it in my gut. I've always regretted that failure.

So I jumped at this book, hoping it might give me a chance to redeem myself. Ms. Ouellette did not explain calculus in a way that made me understand it well. I did not have that “mimetic” moment I was so hoping for.

To be fair, that was not the author's objective. Rather, she sought to demonstrate how calculus could be used in ordinary life situations. The CBS TV series “Numb3rs” tried to do the same thing (if you can call FBI investigations ordinary life). Neither one of them achieved that objective, although at least the TV show made advanced math and science seem a little bit sexy. After all, no one is going to pause their surfing fun to calculate the wave's rate of change, or delay getting on the roller coaster to first determine it's velocity. Maybe Charlie Epps would use calculus to fight a traffic ticket, but I hardly think that's realistic, much less common. As for the “zombie apocalypse”, well, I enjoyed the lesson in epidemiology, but … come on!

Okay, maybe her objective was simply to use real life situations, that we math dummies could understand, to explain how calculus worked. Even that I think was less than successful. I suspect that calculus is something you have to keep working at, in situations where you really do need to use it (e.g. science or statistics), until it either makes sense or becomes so habitual that it doesn't matter.

I don't regret reading this book, or even buying it, but I'm not sure I would recommend it to anyone who didn't already understand calculus and might enjoy the offbeat approach to math.

[Review August 3, 2011]