Diary of dangerous curves

By Phil Plait | August 31, 2010 12:00 pm

calculusdiariesCool news, math dorks: my friend Jennifer Ouellette’s new book The Calculus Diaries comes out today!

I’ve known Jennifer for a couple of years now. She helms the Science and Entertainment Exchange (trying to get better science into movies), she spoke (wonderfully) at TAM 7, she was at SETIcon and Comic Con, and I also know her through her husband, cosmologist Sean Carroll — he blogs for the Hive Overmind at Cosmic Variance. Jennifer writes the Cocktail Party Physics blog and for the Discovery Channel blogs, too… and I am not ashamed to admit I have a wild crush on her avatar, Jen-Luc Piquant. So I was really excited to get my hands on an advance copy of her book, especially since I knew she could handle the topic well.

It was everything I had hoped for. Yeah, look, I know: it’s a book about calculus. But it just so happens to be a really good book about calculus! It’s not equations and homework — well, OK, there are equations — it’s really stories and fun and personal tales punctuated with how calculus gives us insight into the backstory. I know a bit of math, but didn’t know that calculus can be used to describe the Dutch tulip boom of the 17th century, or why you may not need to worry about a zombie horde (because by the time you know it’s happening, it’s too late to do anything about it except start getting used to shambling and eating brains).

Jennifer uses her great writing style to make these ideas easy to read and fun to think about. I suspect that if you like my blog, you’ll like this book. If math terrifies you then you can skip over the equations (though honestly, you’re missing out), and if you like the math you’ll love the way it gets applied here.

All in all, I recommend it. If you hurry, you can still read it on the beach during these last days of summer… or get her to sign it at Dragon*Con next week!

P.S. There’s a Facebook page for it, too.


Comments (24)

  1. Is there anything that does not have a facebook page.
    Book sounds cool.

  2. ggremlin

    Oh great, a mathematical formula that PROVES zombies will kills us all, now my wife will never leave the house.

    Seriously, I wish this had been around 30 years ago when I hit my mathematical wall at calculus.


    Davidlpf (#1):

    Is there anything that does not have a facebook page.

    KU KLUX KLAN. ūüėõ

  4. I have always found algebra to be incredibly useful, for everything from writing formulas in Excel to constructing analogies, much to the surprise of the 10 year old version of me.

  5. jcm

    I’ll put it on my reading list!

  6. Utakata

    At one time it was noted she was a Fullmetal Alchemist fan. That’s good enough for me. <3

  7. Anonymous Coward

    Everything has a Facebook page:
    They’re a bit tricky to find, but they scuttle out of the woodwork once you know the code.

  8. MadScientist

    I object to the “lose weight” and “win in Vegas” part of the title – perhaps the author thinks it a bit of a joke (and I really like J. Oulette) but I don’t think it’s funny at all. There are people with serious gambling problems and mentioning “winning in Vegas” is not a good thing. After all, casinos hire mathematicians (or at least some used to) to ensure that rules are set so that the casino does not lose, and that on average the gambler loses. And no, there is no “beating the system” which folks with gambling problems religiously believe in.

    As for the “losing weight” there’s another reminder of some of the biggest scams out there – the instant weight loss. “Just read this book and buy my special diet and you’ll magically lose weight.” To me it’s another serious issue being trivialized.

    What an unfortunate title for a book. I’ll put it on my list of books to check out though.

  9. Hey Phil, how much math do u need to know to read the book? Cuz it sounds pretty cool, but I’m in high school…

  10. I’m SO gonna get a signed one at Dragon*Con!

  11. IBY

    Introductory calculus is not that hard as long as you know some basic algebra. Trust me, people overplay the difficulty of calculus, or at least some of the basics of it. The gist of it has to do with finding the slope of a curve (differentiation), which is a lot easier to do than it sounds like, and area under the curve (integration), which is somewhat harder. Later, it gets really difficult, like some of the later integration, differential equations, multivariable, etc, but that is not what the book is about.

  12. gravespinner

    Lighten up Francis.
    Seriously, to pick a PC book title these days can be a challenge. Even if you avoid the mainstream, there are always special interest groups to challenge you.

  13. Toad

    My first impression of the book was that “Lose Weight” and “Win in Vegas” sound very shifty and untrustworthy.

    I’ll bet that the word choice was dictated by the publisher, but regardless, it’s still unfortunate.

  14. OldenOne

    @MadScientist: I object to the title of the book/movie “Fried Green Tomatoes” because I know someone who is allergic to tomatoes, and also the titles of the “Star Wars” movies, because so many people die in wars, and also to “The New York Times” because it excludes other cities in the name…… c’mon.

  15. QuietDesperation

    math dorks

    You know, I’ve given up my fight against the use of geek (the G word) and nerd (the other N word), but you might want to consider the origins of dork.

    Well, I’m off to bite the head off a chicken.

  16. QuietDesperation

    There are people with serious gambling problems and mentioning ‚Äúwinning in Vegas‚ÄĚ is not a good thing.

    There are blind people. Printing non-braille books at all is an insult to them!

    There are dead people. Products that assume you are alive are just atrocious. Won’t someone think of the dead?

  17. dalai_lala

    I wanna be Jennifer Ouellette when I grow up!


  18. t-storm

    Also not a single star was harmed except the death star which wasn’t even a star at all.

    I object to the title Death from the Skies since it should really be called Death from Space.

    I also object to object oriented programming.

  19. Donovan

    I object to the objecting as I have been called objectionable, and that made me sad.

    If the object is to object to the object, object being the book, the book being the third object, the second “object(n)” of this sentence, to be perfectly objective, then such an objection should be made with objective criteria, if we may agree, or do you object?

  20. Nigel Depledge

    I’ve quite enjoyed several popular-maths-type books, including Marcus du Sautoy’s The Music of the Primes (which I highly recommend) so I’ll add this to my wishlist.

  21. Kim

    Geez Louise. Obviously the subtitle is tongue-in-cheek; it promises to help you “survive a zombie apocalypse”! Do you know anyone who would be offended by that, because their loved one was killed by zombies? Because it’s clear that you’re just trying to get butt-hurt.
    I will definitely check this book out–looks very interesting!

  22. Great cover! As a maths nerd and coincidentally also a rollercoaster anorak, I feel compelled to buy this :)

    I believe that loop on the front may be what is known as a clothoid, which provides constant acceleration; but I suppose I’ll have to read the book and find out!

    (Update: I think I was wrong… curse my failing memory!)

  23. Swoopy

    Dear Critical Thinkers. Please do so.

    Judging the book by the cover is never wise – readers of the Bad Astronomer should know better.

    I suspect – you’ve not read the book yet. I just did. It’s awesome. It also goes into great detail about the real odds of gambling (mathematically) and about the myth of “streaks” as well as the downfall of those who think they can beat the odds, and gambling addiction.

    So yes – the title is laced with sarcasm, and is a play on those books we all revile so much that promise miracles where none exist.

    Also – the BA is thanked in the book’s acknowledgements. Well deserved, Phil.


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