Book Review: The Calculus Diaries

Jan 20 2011 Published by under Book Reviews, Uncategorized

Sci's not going to lie. I HATED math. Ok, Algebra I could handle, but Calculus? Let's just say my GPA wasn't high for a very good reason. And that reason was Calculus. Remembering the dusty lecture room with the plain white furniture and the feeling of fear every time I hear the words "Derivative" or "Integral" is not a pretty thing. But when I heard that Jennifer Oullette had a book out about Calculus...I thought I'd give it another try. I've always liked Jennifer's blog, Cocktail Party Physics, and I thought, if ANYONE was going to get me to feel ok about Calculus, she was probably it.

I got my copy in the mail (SIGNED! <3) and settled in to read. Well, "settling in" is a misnomer. I have basically no time to read anymore. So I read all my books for review (and other books) while cross-training at the gym. This means I only get in 1-3 hours of reading a week (the rest of the workout time is running and it's very hard to read, you run in to people and trees and stuff). But doing reading while on the stairmaster and elliptical and bike turned out to be really useful for this book, particularly in Chapter 7. Jennifer, throughout Chapter 7, I quite literally felt your pain. 🙂


(Available at Amazon)

The Calculus Diaries is one woman's story toward a grudging appreciation of calculus. It is not a textbook and not intended to be one, and there's not an equation to be found (until you get to the Appendix). Rather, it's a story of calculus in your every day life, and how it can help you figure out things like the REAL odds at a casino (not good), how fast your jeans will dry when you got them soaked in the rain this morning and how cold your coffee will be when you get there (sigh), or the rate of potential zombie infection (VERY useful). Each chapter covers a different aspect of how calculus affects your every day life, from driving to rollercoasters to weight loss to surfing, taking each activity and our experience of it, and showing how calculus is there. The book is not intended for you to LEARN calculus. Rather, it's intended to give you a healthy appreciation and interest for what calculus can do for you.

The book is charming, entertaining, AND educational, and was enough to keep me reading while going at it on the bike for a good 60 minutes at a time. Each chapter gives a situation, a problem, or a quirky history of some ancient mathematician, all of which lead in easily and comfortably into an explanation of the math. Not the WHAT of the math (I repeat, NO equations in the main text) but the WHY of the math, WHY this particular equation was needed and what it was used for.

And I really wish that this book would become required reading for most calculus teachers. Not that they don't understand it already, but so they can give people like me the kind of interesting examples and "AHA" moments that Jennifer did. And I had them. Newton's apple falling and the rate of change forming a parabola was a MAJOR "AHA" moment for me. I'd never understood that before, and no calculus teacher had ever mentioned to me where parabolic curves might occur in my every day life. The same thing happened with the rate of cooling of a cup of coffee ("AHA!") and the sine wave ("AHA!"). I still don't love calculus. But I GET IT now. And I wonder, if someone had given me these examples, had taken me on a rollercoaster and made me calculate, or taken me to a beach, whether I might have given Calculus a harder try.

Jennifer is very right about the bias toward women in math that she presents in her final chapter. Part of the reason I never learned to like Calculus was because it was completely acceptable for me to be bad at it. Boys who were bad at math, but good at other subjects were of course worked with, they were SUPPOSED to be good at math and thus got more training in it. But if a girl was bad at math? That's ok, she's SUPPOSED to be bad at math. I was never supposed to get an "AHA" moment, I was just supposed to muddle through and hope that I'd be good at science anyway. But enjoyment of learning, and the willingness to try, is heavily influenced by those "AHA" moments, the feeling that you CAN understand this stuff. Those heady "I get it!" moments were what pulled me in to science, and are what pull many people down the path of learning. And this book is full of them. You follow along as Jennifer herself "gets it", as she starts to understand the calculus going on in her daily life. Her burning enthusiasm for learning in this book is tempered by a certain amount of cynicism about all that math, which makes you identify all the more with her journey, because you've got that cynicism, too.

So, after all this, is the book GOOD?! HECK YEAH it is. Good enough that I spent time reading it bobbing up and down on the elliptical, without twisting once to the side to look over at my next-machine neighbor watching "the Bachelor". Good enough that when I got to the end, I read the appendix, with all the equations, and GOT IT. And good enough that remembering that dusty classroom, filled with TI-83s and the smell of fear, isn't so bad anymore. I can understand this stuff. You probably can, too. And knowing that I can makes me want to go out and try it.

7 responses so far

  • Jason Dick says:

    Interesting. One aspect of my own experience with calculus was that I took a class in physics the year before, so all throughout my first calculus course there were a bunch of "aha" moments as I connected the new calculus I was learning to concepts I had known from physics. That may have been part of the reason that I loved calculus from the start 🙂

    The calculus class I took was purely mechanistic in its content, with no connection to reality, but perhaps that earlier physics class really helped to make the course as a whole engaging.

    But having enjoyed calculus from the start, I really think it's something that everybody should be able to appreciate!

  • Christina Pikas says:

    I loved calculus from the start but struggled through a really awful professor in calc 3. In the review for the final we had one of the other TAs, not ours. He was so excited about it and was talking about temperature gradients in the room and ski slopes ... sort of revived my interest. So when I took calc 3 a second time, with a decent teacher, I both got it and enjoyed it. (didn't strictly have to take it over, but the review showed me what I hadn't learned).
    Anyway, calculus has always seemed a lot more real world than some subjects. YMMV.

  • arvind says:

    Luckily for me, my brain was wired in such a way that when I first encountered algebra, I began to think of it geometrically even before I learnt about algebraic equations being very geometric once you define a coordinate system. So it was pretty intuitive for me when I encountered calculus a few years later to consider derivatives as slopes of curves and integrals as areas under curves.

    Glad to hear you finally had such aha moments to appreciate calculus. Who knows? It might even help you even now in your data analysis or in the math portions of smoothly varying neurophysiological phenomena that you might discover in the future!

  • Sounds interesting!

    I wish teachers would do a better job of explaining how this seemingly dry, academic stuff they're talking about is applicable to the real world. My husband said he paid no attention to maths in high school, because he assumed he'd never need it - then when he became a carpenter in his early 20s, he had to teach himself trigonometry and other stuff from scratch. He claims the maths teachers focused on teaching those kids who were going into science and engineering courses, and made no attempt to engage the others.

  • bsci says:

    scicurious, Do you think your 13 to 16-year-old self would have been affected by this book or is it more targeted towards adults?

    • scicurious says:

      I think it's more targeted to adults honestly, unless you've got an AWESOME teenager.

      • Connor T. says:

        I'm actually an 18 year old, finishing up my first year of AP calculus in my senior year of High School. I got this book earlier in the year, tried to read it, totally couldn't, and put it onto my book self. But after a few months of being taught it in class, I went back to the book and found it amazing! Jennifer (and especially her husband Sean) bridged the gap between the book work and the real world. Now that I could at least follow what she was saying, the book was fantastic! I didn't really have any AHA moments in my classroom, but I kept getting them whenever I picked up The Calculus Diaries! I actually got my calculus teacher to read it as well, and she adored it (she bought a copy for herself)! This is a great book, and I would suggest anyone, rather adults or teens, who are taking/took a calculus course to read this book during said course. It will definitely make the class easier, more enjoyable, and it will make calculus stick!

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