The Big Idea: Jennifer Ouellette
I’ll make a confession here: I was the only person in my class at my very-competitive college prep high school who did not take calculus. Which is a fact which bothered the calculus teachers immensely – the would come up to me and warn me I was throwing my life away, or at least my chances to attend a good college, by not taking the course. The irony of course is that I went on to write science fiction, a genre which benefits from a knowledge of calculus. The sound you hear is the teeth of those teachers, grinding away.
So it was with some considerable interest that I came to science writer Jennifer Ouellette’s new book The Calculus Diaries: How Math Can Help You Lose Weight, Win in Vegas, and Survive a Zombie Apocalypse. Like me, she was a math class refusnik; like me, she writes in a field where a knowledge of calculus comes in handy. How does she handle coming to calculus at a later point in her life? I’ll let her tell you.
There’s an episode of the TV series House that opens with a group of students taking the AP calculus exam. A boy collapses and is rushed to the hospital. When Dr. House is told of the circumstances of the boy’s collapse, he quips, “That’s the way calculus presents.”
So calculus has a formidable reputation. I have always been among those non-mathematical sorts who viewed it with trepidation and preferred to keep a safe distance. And I’m not alone: a large chunk of the population finds math in general, and calculus in particular, intimidating and distasteful. I have friends who break into a cold sweat at the sight of a simple algebraic equation. The fact that math has its own language — a sort of symbolic secret code to which only a select few hold the key – only makes matters worse.
So I figured it was time someone wrote a book about calculus from that perspective, and who better to do so than a former math-phobic English major who went on to become a science writer specializing in physics? Most popular math books are written by people who already love the subject and are quite knowledgeable – i.e., actual mathematicians.
The problem is, they’re so familiar with the topic that they forget what it’s like to know nothing. The most basic concept can be a challenge for a rank beginner. For instance, how do you explain what a mathematical function is to someone who doesn’t “speak math”? I can parrot the technical definition. But that doesn’t mean I fully understand the concept.
Of course, this meant I had to actually learn calculus before I could write about it coherently. When I started, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Calculus proved a little over my head. Fortunately, my Spousal Unit is a physicist at Caltech. He helped me find real-world examples of calculus, and gamely answered all my pesky “why is the sky blue?” questions. The result is The Calculus Diaries: How Math Can Help You Lose Weight, Win in Vegas, and Survive a Zombie Apocalypse. It’s less about teaching the nuts and bolts of calculus and more about turning the world around you into your mathematical playground.
We learned to shoot craps in a Vegas casino to demonstrate the calculus of probability. We indulged in the rides at Disneyland, and I learned about freefall and parabolic curves, and how to apply vector calculus to Space Mountain. I went surfing in Hawaii to learn about sine waves and the Fourier transform, and our house-hunting expedition turned into a multivariable optimization problem.
I even chatted with an epidemiologist about how to use differential equations to analyze an outbreak of zombification. (Worse-case scenario: the zombies wipe us out in four days, unless we go all Zombieland on their undead butts and kill them as fast as possible. So now you know. Read the appendix and you’ll also know the derivation, and can impress your friends at parties.)
Writing the book also forced me to ask some deep questions about where my kneejerk rejection of equations originated. It would be easy to simply blame the patriarchy, but it’s far more complicated than that. It’s true that there is lingering gender bias about women in math – and lots of women have the horror stories to prove it – but my own negative reaction stemmed from a weird form of Imposter Syndrome.
Even though I’d done well in my math classes and earned top grades in high school, deep down I knew I was just memorizing patterns and didn’t really understand the subject deeply. I was terrified that my ignorance would be discovered and I would be publicly humiliated as an academic fraud. Even though this never transpired, that fear colored my attitude towards math for much of my adult life; I avoided it like the plague.
I talked to lots of very smart people with varying degrees of math-phobia, and they all had one thing in common: an early negative experience with math that shattered their confidence and instilled a deep-seated fear and dislike of numbers. As one woman memorably described her feelings: “My initial reaction to the word ‘calculus’ is not unlike a caveman throwing rocks at the moon in ignorance and fear resulting in blind rage. There is no such thing as ghosts creeping up behind me on the stairs, but there is such a thing as a polynomial monster, and it has hooked teeth and causes chronic yeast infections, I’m sure.”
The truth is, the Calculus Monster isn’t all that scary once you face it head-on. We all do some form of calculus all the time, without realizing it. A baseball outfielder has to estimate where the ball is likely to land after the batter gets a hit. Whether he knows it or not, his brain is calculating the trajectory of that ball, then sending a signal telling the outfielder where to place himself in order to make the catch. Lurking somewhere in that process is a calculus problem. Or two.
I think scientists have a valid point when they bemoan the fact that it’s socially acceptable in our culture to be utterly ignorant of math, whereas it is a shameful thing to be illiterate. We could all be just a little bit mathier. I hope my book will encourage others like me to give this much-maligned subject a second chance.