Calculus Day!

By Sean Carroll | August 31, 2010 8:14 am

Yes, I know, I’m not very good at this hiatus thing. But there is important news that needs to be promulgated widely — the news of calculus. No more will innocent citizens cower in fear at the thought of derivatives and integrals, or flash back in horror to the days of terror and confusion in high-school math class. Because now there is a cure for these maladies — The Calculus Diaries: How Math Can Help You Lose Weight, Win in Vegas, and Survive a Zombie Apocalypse.

The Calculus Diaries

Yes, you read that subtitle correctly. Let’s be clear: this book is probably not for you. That’s because you, I have no doubt, already love calculus. You carry a table of integrals in your back pocket, and you practice substituting variables to while away the time in the DMV. This isn’t the book for people who already appreciate the austere beauty of a differential equation, or even for people who want to study up for their AP exam.

No, this is the book for people who hate math. It’s for people who look at you funny and turn away at parties when you mention that you enjoy science. It’s for your older relatives who think you’re crazy for appreciating all that technical stuff, or your nieces and nephews who haven’t yet been captivated by the beauty of mathematics. The Calculus Diaries is the book for people who need to be convinced that math isn’t an intimidating chore — that it can be fun.

Know anybody like that? Any gift-giving holidays coming up?

Now it’s true, I know the author. In fact, I appear as a character in the book (to a certain degree of comic effect). I’m the one who gets soaked when we ride Splash Mountain at Disneyland, but also the one who maximizes his winnings at craps by clever betting in Vegas. You get the idea: this isn’t a textbook, it’s a tour through the real world (and occasional fantasy worlds), pointing out that math is all around us, and that perceiving it is kind of cool.

When you understand math, how you think about the world changes. Every day, we all change position by accumulating velocity, or do informal optimization problems when making a decision. But most people don’t know about the wonderful insights that math can add to these processes. You know, because you are a mathphile. But you are outnumbered by the mathphobes. You have a secret that they don’t know, but now there’s a way to share it. What are you waiting for?

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  • Jimbo

    Jennifer’s book I’m sure is fun to read, & I hope it’s a success. Now, if we can just inject it into the early HS curriculum as mandatory for all. Our entire civilization RUNS on calculus, yet most are oblivious to it. Just today, more dismal results for Oregon’s math & reading scores for middle school students. It goes on & on, ad eternitum, and NOTHING significant ever changes. i.e., its the SOS for the multitudes & math learning.
    The post-Sputnik PSSC HS physics revolution was supposed to help us compete w/ Soviet superiority in science, but did squat. Nor did the infusion of PCs into the classroom. Nor did any other extreme measures turn the faltering tide. Fully half of the US public has sub-HS level math ability. No wonder math is a 4-letter word…
    I have a theory, which is borne out by Asian & Jewish student’s long-established excellence in math & science.
    Not only are these students bilingual early on, but they learn to read & write English in parallel with Hebrew & e.g., Chinese characters. This combination is made even more potent, by their learning of music theory. By requiring the brain to assimilate & then utilize these abstract symbols early on, new learning channels are forged in gray matter, plowing fertile ground for the assimilation of mathematical symbols & logic later on.
    We have no such potent triad imposed upon the majority of todays kids, who exhibit only mediocre English skills, and are ostensibly musically & mathematically illiterate.

  • Pat Dennis

    The physics amateur’s heartbreaking discovery: First year calculus gets you up to the year 1800 or so in understanding physics. It appears that you need the calculus of variations and partial differential equations to get through the ninteenth century, then differential geometry, linear algebra and group theory to make a decent inroad into the twentieth!

  • Katharine

    Diff eqs built the world. All science students should be required to take it.

    I wish I could. It would help me in forming biological models.

    Luckily, a computer science graduate student I ran into online (who happens to be the nephew of one of Romania’s rich weirdos, lol) has a good online textbook about elementary diff eqs:

  • Mandeep

    Very cool — looks like this is continuing in the thread of Danica McKellar’s very popular books of the last few years, making math much more accessible for girls and young women. This is an area in desperate need of attention (both for girls, and boys too), so i’m really glad to see this out.

    Congrats Jennifer (and Sean!).

  • Rocket Scientista

    Yay for calculus and yay for trying to get people to not automatically chime in with a, “I HATE MATH” whenever I mention anything about doing science or engineering. Oh, and a final yay for getting soaked at Splash Mountain.

  • spyder

    (to a certain degree of comic effect).

    Oh, a new updated 21st century version of Eco’s Travels in HyperReality?

  • “Shecky R.”

    I actually stumbled upon the book last week at Borders and have already read through it. The best part is learning what romantics those brainy Caltech physicists are…

  • réalta fuar

    @Pat Dennis The dirty little secret of physics teachers is that first year PHYSICS gets you up to about the year 1800 in understanding physics…..

  • bittergradstudent


    Do you know about Gerard t’Hooft’s How to be a good theoretical physicist page? It contains a ton of quality links, often to free textbooks, taking you from pre-HS level science to string theory.

    It’s not complete, by any means, but at least there’s a lot of information gathered in one place.

  • plutosdad

    Doesn’t everyone hate integrals? I remember at the saturday morning physics program at FermiLab, some researchers printed out the curves and weighed them to get the area. After that I didn’t feel bad about hating integrals. :)

  • S.C. Kavassalis

    Congrats to Jennifer! I’m sure I know a few people who I’ll be recommending this too.

  • HPLC

    Very cool!

  • Smokin’ Deist

    This looks like a good book, but my first experience with Calculus starts this fall with Math 251 at my college. lol

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  • Andrew Perrin

    Sounds like a neat book. I think the reader would have to be at least open to the idea that math could be interesting in order to get her/him to pick up the book, though. Maybe if you catch them young enough.

    You carry a table of integrals in your back pocket

    Whoa, retro, dude! We have calculators that handle that sort of thing now. Since, like, the 1990s.

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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