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

The Great Silence – Milan Cirkovic ****

The great 20th century physicist Enrico Fermi didn’t say a lot about extraterrestrial life, but his one utterance on the subject has gone down in legend. He said ‘Where is everybody?’ Given the enormous size and age of the universe, and the basic Copernican principle that there’s nothing special about planet Earth, space should be teeming with aliens. Yet we see no evidence of them. That, in a nutshell, is Fermi’s paradox.

Not everyone agrees that Fermi’s paradox is a paradox. To some people, it’s far from obvious that ‘space should be teeming with aliens’, while UFO believers would scoff at the suggestion that ‘we see no evidence of them’. Even people who accept that both statements are true – including  a lot of professional scientists – don’t always lose sleep over Fermi’s paradox. That’s something that makes Milan Cirkovic see red, because he takes it very seriously indeed. In his own words, ‘it is the most complex multidisciplinary problem in contemporary science’.

He points out th…

The Happy Brain - Dean Burnett ****

This book was sitting on my desk for some time, and every time I saw it, I read the title as 'The Happy Brian'. The pleasure this gave me was one aspect of the science of happiness that Dean Burnett does not cover in this engaging book.

Burnett's writing style is breezy and sometimes (particularly in footnotes) verging on the whimsical. His approach works best in the parts of the narrative where he is interviewing everyone from Charlotte Church to a stand-up comedian and various professors on aspects of happiness. We get to see the relevance of home and familiarity, other people, love (and sex), humour and more, always tying the observations back to the brain.

In a way, Burnett sets himself up to fail, pointing out fairly early on that everything is far too complex in the brain to really pin down the causes of something as diffuse as happiness. He starts off with the idea of cheekily trying to get time on an MRI scanner to study what his own brain does when he's happy, b…

The Order of Time - Carlo Rovelli ***

There's good news and bad news. The good news is that The Order of Time does what A Brief History of Timeseemed to promise but didn't cover: it attempts to explore what time itself is. The bad news is that Carlo Rovelli does this in such a flowery and hand-waving fashion that, though the reader may get a brief feeling that they understand what he's writing about, any understanding rapidly disappears like the scent of a passing flower (the style is catching).

It doesn't help either that the book is in translation so some scientific terms are mangled, or that Rovelli has a habit of self-contradiction. Time and again (pun intended) he tells us time doesn't exist, then makes use of it. For example, at one point within a page of telling us of time's absence Rovelli writes of events that have duration and a 'when' - both meaningless terms without time. At one point he speaks of a world without time, elsewhere he says 'Time and space are real phenomena.'…