Skip to main content

The Calculus Diaries – Jennifer Ouellette ***

Popular maths is a pig to write – much harder than the rest of popular science. Unless you are dealing with one of the glamorous aspects like infinity or Fermat’s last theorem, there are two big problems in grabbing a reader’s attention. One is that the maths itself can be more than a little impenetrable, and the other is that the applications (if there are any) can seem more like mental doodling than telling us something mind blowing about reality, as is the case with something like physics.
Jennifer Ouellette sets out to address both these problems in a very personal take on calculus and its importance to us. She is a self-admitted fearer of calculus, an English graduate for whom it was once all a mystery – but with help from her physicist husband, she sets out to tame this powerful mathematical tool.
It’s a recipe for a really enjoyable book, and it kind of works. Ouellette takes us on a very personal journey, so there’s a lot about her and her husband and their adventures that, if I’m honest I wasn’t really particularly interested in. This may be a personal failing – I’m interested in mathematicians and their lives, but I don’t really want to know about Ouellette and partner’s attempts in a casino or how they pass on little messages to each other at home on a whiteboard. Still, it’s certainly true that the approach takes away some of the impersonal scariness of mathematics.
When it comes down to the calculus itself, I was in a bit of a quandary. It is a hugely important tool that scientists and engineers resort to all the time – but the actual doing of it is, frankly, a bit tedious and I found the practical working of the maths side of the book both a little dull and also surprisingly opaque – I think I understand calculus, but some of the explanations of its use I found difficult to follow.
It’s interesting that the bit of the book I enjoyed most, dealing with the application of maths to gambling, really didn’t have much to do with calculus at all – it was more about probability. This was good fun and instructive for those who feel they might like a flutter in a casino. In fact there were several chapters where calculus really only got a passing mention, and some were among the better parts of the contents.
Overall there’s plenty going on here. You’ll visit a green gym, find out about calculating the stresses on arches in buildings, explore the maths of personal finance and of surfing. Oh yes, and you’ll find out about the way zombies (and other plagues) can spread. Altogether too much about zombies, in fact. Yet it just didn’t quite work for me. I wanted to love it, but failed in the attempt.

Hardback (US is paperback) 
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Beyond Weird - Philip Ball *****

It would be easy to think 'Surely we don't need another book on quantum physics.' There are loads of them. Anyone should be happy with The Quantum Age on applications and the basics, Cracking Quantum Physics for an illustrated introduction or In Search of Schrödinger's Cat for classic history of science coverage. Don't be fooled, though - because in Beyond Weird, Philip Ball has done something rare in my experience until Quantum Sense and Nonsense came along. It makes an attempt not to describe quantum physics, but to explain why it is the way it is.

Historically this has rarely happened. It's true that physicists have come up with various interpretations of quantum physics, but these are designed as technical mechanisms to bridge the gap between theory and the world as we see it, rather than explanations that would make sense to the ordinary reader.

Ball does not ignore the interpretations, though he clearly isn't happy with any of them. He seems to come clo…

Mercury - William Sheehan ****

Driving to work one morning several years ago, I spotted a tiny white dot close to the rising sun. ‘That’s Venus,’ I said to myself. Almost immediately I saw another, much brighter dot a few degrees away. ‘No, that’s Venus – the first one must be, um ... Mercury.’ Even with a lifelong interest in astronomy, I always manage to forget Mercury.

With eight planets in the Solar System, one of them has to be the least interesting – and Mercury got the short straw. That’s a relative statement, though, and a diligent author could still dig up enough fascinating facts about that tiny dot by the Sun to fill a short book. William Sheehan has done a brilliant job of doing just that.

One of the reasons Mercury is so easy to forget is that it’s almost impossible to get a good view of it from Earth. Even after the invention of the telescope, which turned planets like Mars and Jupiter into explorable worlds, Mercury remained a mystery – and the subject of some pretty wild speculations. In 1686, for exa…

Everything You Know About Planet Earth is Wrong - Matt Brown ****

This is the latest of a series of 'Everything You Know About... is Wrong' books from Matt Brown. Although I always feel slightly hard done by as a result of the assertion in the title, as there are certainly things here I know that aren't wrong (I mean, come on, the first corrected piece of 'knowledge' is that 'The Earth is only 6,000 years old' and I can't imagine many readers will 'know' that), it's a handy format to provide what are often surprisingly little snippets of information that are very handy for 'did you know' conversations down the pub (or showing up your parents if you're a younger reader).

Some of the incorrect statements that head each article are well-covered, if often still believed (for example, people thought that world was flat before Columbus), some are a little tricksy in the wording (such as seas have to wash up against land) and some are just pleasantly surprising (countering the idea that gold is a rar…