Tuesday, 27 September 2011

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

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