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The Calculus Diaries: How Math Can Help You Lose Weight, Win in Vegas, and Survive a Zombie Apocalypse

3.36 of 5 stars 3.36  ·  rating details  ·  376 ratings  ·  81 reviews
Kiss My Math meets A Tour of the Calculus

Jennifer Ouellette never took math in college, mostly because she-like most people-assumed that she wouldn't need it in real life. But then the English-major-turned-award-winning-science-writer had a change of heart and decided to revisit the equations and formulas that had haunted her for years. The Calculus Diaries is the fun a
Paperback, 333 pages
Published August 31st 2010 by Penguin Books (first published August 1st 2010)
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This book is well written and many of her stories are enjoyable, but on the whole it was a disappointment.

I loved math as a teenager. I would stay after school with a couple friends to do impromptu math competitions. When I got to college, I initially planned to major in math. But after my third semester of calculus, when I received a grade of “satisfactory” rather than what I was used to, I changed my major to French. I had loved algebra – I just “got it”. And geometry, though it wasn't quite
So OK I'm not the intended audience for this book and that's the major reason I'm stopping reading it. I also found the first chapters pretty awesome and then it kind of degraded. I read over 1/2 of it and I started feeling like it was padded a bit with just lists of things that have nothing to do with calculus or really math at all.

The killer item was just a basic "fact" that was tossed it, again for no reason, that was no fact at all and the skeptic in me was really let down and I have to stop
Ro Givens
I like and agree with Danica McKeller's comment on this book: "This is a great primer for anyone who needs to get over their heebie-jeebies about an upcoming calculus class, or for anyone who's ever wondered how calculus fits into everyday life and wants to be entertained, too!"

This isn't a math treatise, it's a not a textbook, so it's not going to satisfy the mathie in you (if one exists in you). At first I thought, "This would make more sense with some symbols and written as a proof," but I ev
"We all use Math everyday"

The Good: This book is great in that in answers the question, "When are you ever going to use this?" Ouellette presents numerous examples of how Calculus impacts all of our lives. Everything from amusement parks, to rates of (zombie) infections, surfing and driving falls within the realm of calculus. She does a great job in this regard. The epilogue truly explains what her purpose was in writing this book. The point of the book is not to teach you how to do calculus, bu
What this book is not:
1) A diary of the author's attempt to overcome her fear and loathing of calculus (save for the introduction and the epilogue).
2) An introduction to calculus.

What this book is:
1) A list of applications for calculus not unlike Week One of a calculus syllabus or the introduction to a calculus textbook.
2) A collection of anecdotes and facts about major figures (and some often overlooked figures and a couple of contemporary interviewees) throughout the history of calculus and ph
This book was geared more toward someone without a lot of calculus background, as a sort of preparatory primer. It answers the inevitable question of "When will I ever use this?" asked by so many students who aren't spellbound by the math for its own sake.

The trouble is, I *am* spellbound by the math for its own sake, and so I wound up very disappointed that there was hardly any actual calculus in the book at all. What little there is, is stuffed into the Appendices, and is only the absolute bas
Patrick Stein
Quit reading at about page 120. It had some amusing math-history stories, but even pop math books shouldn't mangle the meaning of "density" or "proportional".

No, the density of a liter of water is NOT one kilogram.

No, the rate at which a cup of coffee cools is NOT proportional to its temperature.

In the section about craps, I was able to give her the benefit of the doubt and think she just phrased things awkwardly enough to confuse her, her physicist husband, and her editor. By the middle of Spla
Not much math in this book. Actually less than in "Numb3rs" TV Series, which "demonstrates the relevance of mathematics better than any pedagogical method that [the author has] yet encountered." ?!?

Mostly (pleasantly written) stories and anecdotes fine for a newspaper or a blog but that don't justify making a book out of them.

There is however a good simplified introduction on Fourier transform.
Apr 05, 2011 Jenn rated it 4 of 5 stars
Shelves: 2011
Well, for a math book it was pretty good! I read it for extra credit in my Survey of Mathematics class. (Yeah, I needed the extra points! LOL)

Ouellette uses a humorous approach, relate-able stories, and history to tell about the practical uses of calculus. Did you know that the process of "balancing" in Algebra was invented more than 1000 years before the equal sign? I was fascinated to learn about Cartesian coordinates, vectors and then how the Mad Tea Party ride works. (It's dueling vectors th
Brian Clegg
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.

This book is a must-read for mathematicians and non-mathematicians alike!
For mathematicians, the book gives a recap of your calculus classes in college (calculus 1 and 2, multivariable calculus, and differential equations). You also get to see calculus from a different viewpoint, that of a non-mathematician. For me, the book gave me insight on how to answer the question so often asked by my non-mathy friends: "What do you actually DO with calculus?"
For non-mathematicians, the book gives insight
Oulette's best writing begins while tying all of the book's concepts together at the end of the last chapter: "I will never listen to ocean waves or view a beautiful sunset in quite the same way again. That is perhaps the greatest gift one can gain by delving into calculus: It is a whole new way of looking at the world, accessible only through the realm of mathematics. I looked out over the ocean that evening and saw a picture-perfect sunset, but there was so much more that I had missed. [A phys ...more
Bob Price
If you ever wondered who would survive the zombie assured this book has the answer. It's not the marine with years of combat experience. It's not the hunter with dead accurate shots. It guessed it....the math nerd! Yes...all those years of studying differential equations are good for something!

The Calculus Diaries is the math book you should read if you don't understand the reason why math is important. Or if you don't enjoy math...or if you want to see how math can
Eric Bingham
If you are hoping to learn Calculus from this book, don't bother. If you are hoping to get excited about calculus, and find some real life applications for it, then I strongly recommend it. I had Calculus a long time ago, and I muddled through it, but I wish I had read this book (or at least the first chapter) before I took the class. I don't know if I would have understood as much, but I would have been much more excited to take the class. Reading this book did make me wish I could take Calculu ...more
Poussinette (Sophie)
I must admit I'm completely biased and cannot be objective in any way while evaluating this book. You see, I love maths and science and stuggle to share that love with my many beleaguered students.

As a direct consequence, I like most science popularization book I read, and read quite a few.

What I find exceptional in this one is contained in the title : the author manages to find numerous examples of applied calculus (and probabilities) in "real life". Or rather, to use real-life situations to ex
I had high hopes for this book. I picked it up at an airport while traveling -- I saw the title and just couldn't resist! I like calculus, and while I knew about its applications to the roller coaster on the cover I was very curious about its applications to losing weight, winning in Vegas and winning a zombie apocalypse. Also, I was hoping that this would be the sort of book I could give to my mother, who isn't exactly great at math but does enjoy learning the very basic concepts and applicatio ...more
The Calculus Diaries by Jennifer Ouellette was recommended to me some months ago during a lunch with a couple of friends. The conversation had turned toward math and physics (a favored topic amongst the two physic grads at the table)at which point my eyes started to glaze over as they often do when these topics come up. It's not that I don't enjoy them, it's that I have very little experience with them and felt I had nothing to contribute to the conversation no matter how interesting the discuss ...more
If I had judged this book by its cover, I would never even have opened it. I hate roller coasters. I do not want to lose weight. I have zero interest in gambling, or in zombies. But I like math, and so I put aside my prejudices and read the introduction. And the first chapter. And all the rest of it, because Ms. Ouellette's writing is intelligent and witty, and the content is entertaining, with many historical anecdotes and a good overview of the invention of calculus and its practical applicati ...more
Jennifer Ouellette's prose feels a little like low-rent Mary Roach. Since I've read and loved a number of Ms. Roach's books, at times I found this annoying. If you haven't read Bonk or Packing for Mars (which I highly recommend), you'll probably just find it charming.

However, despite that caveat, I really liked this book. I'll confess that there were times when I thought, could I just see the equation for that? and I was actually kind of in a hurry to finish it so I could read the appendix wher
I didn't finish this one. It's not really fair, I feel, to judge a book because it's not the book you thought it was, and so I won't! As many other reviews mention, despite the title, it's not the tale of someone who undertook to learn calculus and what that was like (which is what I wanted), it's an explanation of how often math applies in daily life. Which is not what I wanted. Moving on. . .
It's supposed to be a layman's guide to what you can use calculus for. It was frustrating to me how little math it had in it, though I'm clearly not the audience. (It also seemed just downright wrong in places.)

Actually goes further than I would have thought, with predator/prey models (in the form of Zombie Apocalypse, which would have been more interesting without reference to Pride&Prejudice&Zombies) and calculus of variations.

She has losing weight in the context of optimizing with c
The author gives simple explanations to calculus concepts that are really complex in a really cool way. You don't need to know a lot of math to read this book and in fact, the less you know about math, the more this book is going to surprise you. I appreciate this and the anecdotes are funny in themselves.

But I am not the target audience and I can only read so many explanations of the derivative and integral before I go numb and no amount of funny anecdotes could stop me from asking myself "Why
An introductory look at calculus and how it applies to various situations in life (i.e. the rides at Disneyland, surfing, playing craps in Vegas, driving, losing weight, and the design of the St. Louis Arch). I don't think I would have understood much of this without having taken a pre-calc and statistics class. Sometimes Ouellette explains things well. Sometimes she does not. And I would have liked to fact check a lot of the trivia and history that is thrown in--I don't know if it all rings tru ...more
Sandra Strange
Calculus has been beyond me since my only pre-calc class in high school. Even with this really clear account, I'm still not crystal clear about derivatives and integrals, but after the first chapters explaining these basics, the rest of the book presented really fun reading, relating calculus (even for those of us who don't understand it clearly) to real world applications from calculating shapes and speeds, etc of log flume and other Disneyland rides, the rate of infection from zombies, odds of ...more
Randall Brown
Yes, I it took me two tries at Calculus I in college to pass. That being said I have always been interested in calculus and was quite interested in reading this book.

I think the author does a good job at presenting how calculus works in real life situations and they are pretty varied; from how calculus apllies to Space Mountain at Disneyland to gambling in Vegas.

I would have appreciated more specific step by step problem solving examples as they pertained to the real world examples she provide
A general overview of calculus, with an emphasis on how its application can be extremely useful. This is not a "mathematical" book, as it has no proofs.
The Calculus Diaries is a must for math nerd, geeks grappling with high school (or college) math, and trivia buffs alike. The idea of learning math recreationally may sound ludicrous, but don’t let it put you off. Ouellette delivers a fascinating series of math lessons so neatly couched in humor and the sort of odd historical minutia that keep you riveted to the History Channel that the math almost becomes beside the point.

Pros: Lots of fun. Very educational. Very easy reading.

Cons: The book o
Oct 31, 2010 Don rated it 3 of 5 stars
Shelves: science
Do not be scared by the word "Calculus" in the title - this is actually a very easy read, and quite fun. The writing is snappy and witty. It's not so much a book about teaching you math, but talking about how math - calculus in particular - can be related to real-world scenarios. Something most of us never got during high-school and college math.

I'm only giving it three stars however because at times I felt like I was just reading a series of anecdotes. They were interesting in their own right,
Chandler Pritchett
Possibly interesting for a young high school student. Math-positive and friendly.
Jenny Hemming
It's a book about maths! It makes a pretty good stab at explaining how useful maths is, and how it comes into pretty much anything. Aimed at the reader with minimal knowledge, so that suited me fine, and pretty funny in places. I enjoyed the bits of history, but that'll be no surprise to those that know me. As I'm undertaking a basic OU maths course at the same time, there were a few moments of recognition and I daresay I'll be returning to the appendices (where she hides the equations!) as I co ...more
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Jennifer Ouellette is the author of The Calculus Diaries: How Math Can Help You Lose Weight, Win in Vegas, and Survive a Zombie Apocalypse, due out August 31, 2010. She is also the author of The Physics of the Buffyverse (2007) and Black Bodies and Quantum Cats: Tales from the Annals of Physics (2006), both published by Penguin. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Discover, New Scientist ...more
More about Jennifer Ouellette...
Me, Myself, and Why: Searching for the Science of Self Black Bodies and Quantum Cats: Tales from the Annals of Physics The Physics of the Buffyverse The Best Science Writing Online 2012 Black Bodies and Quantum Cats: Tales of Pure Genius and Mad Science

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“I think scientists have a valid point when they bemoan the fact that it's socially acceptable in our culture to be utterly ignorant of math, whereas it is a shameful thing to be illiterate.” 14 likes
“... I succeeded at math, at least by the usual evaluation criteria: grades. Yet while I might have earned top marks in geometry and algebra, I was merely following memorized rules, plugging in numbers and dutifully crunching out answers by rote, with no real grasp of the significance of what I was doing or its usefulness in solving real-world problems. Worse, I knew the depth of my own ignorance, and I lived in fear that my lack of comprehension would be discovered and I would be exposed as an academic fraud -- psychologists call this "imposter syndrome".” 9 likes
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