Jennifer Ouellette - Calculus, Las Vegas, and the Zombie Apocalypse

September 24, 2010

Host: Chris Mooney

Ever wonder about the mathematical basis for battling a zombie infestation? Jennifer Ouellette has. In her new book The Calculus Diaries, the English major turned science journalist goes on an odyssey to relearn the branch of math that so intimidated her in high school.

Along the way, she finds calculus in activities ranging from surfing, to catching fly balls, to playing craps in Vegas.

Naturally, calculus can also tell us how to stop the marauding zombies before they take over the human population for good.

At a time when the U.S. lags in science and math education, a book like Ouellette's—making math intriguing and accessible—is more than a good read. It’s an educational necessity.

Jennifer Ouellette is the author of three books: Black Bodies and Quantum Cats: Tales from the Annals of Physics, The Physics of the Buffyverse, and most recently, The Calculus Diaries. She has also written widely, blogs at "Cocktail Party Physics," and until recently was director of the Science and Entertainment Exchange, a National Academy of Sciences project to bridge the gap between the research community and Hollywood.

Books Mentioned in This Episode:

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Lawrence M. Krauss - The Fear of Physics
October 10, 2008

Comments from the CFI Forums

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I like the idea of reforming math class.  I agree that it needs
more history, more story telling about the people who have
contributed to it.  I love to hear about Archimedes and the
others.  Those stories make the math seem more relevant, rather
than just a long list of rules. 

It was brave of her to take on calculus like that.  How does
everyone think that she did?  Did you understand the common
example of the relationship between velocity and position that
calculus describes?  And the example of the ball player catching
a ball, having the same relationship, how well did everyone
understand that?

One big advantage that a lecture has over an audio, is a
black/whiteboard.  Mathematics is a written language, of course.
Books have that advantage too.  But text files like this message
have such limited resolution for the layout, that not even
Unicode can make the math look right.  I wonder if her book has
any math in it, or merely has English.

Posted on Sep 30, 2010 at 11:26am by jump_in_the_pit Comment #1

All I saw was zombies.  That’s enough to spark my interest.

Posted on Oct 01, 2010 at 3:06pm by Dead Monky Comment #2

DM, always the joker.  :)

Posted on Oct 01, 2010 at 8:10pm by jump_in_the_pit Comment #3

I yam what I yam.

Posted on Oct 02, 2010 at 12:03pm by Dead Monky Comment #4

DM, quoting the great philosopher and nutritionist of a 1970’s
child.  Ha!  :)

I was very curious, so I pulled a few quotes from Jennifer
Ouellette’s interview, I was looking for the science and her
background in the interview.  Enjoy.

(1:24) “In her new book _The_Calculus_diaries_ this English
major turned science writer goes on an odyssey to re-learn the
branch of math that so intimidated her in high-school.”

(5:47) “I never took calculus, but I certainly took algebra,
advanced algebra.”

(3:55) “Well I’m not trying to teach them calculus, but I would
hope that it would open their eyes… a little bit, because it
certainly changed my perspective.  I’m married to a physicist,
and one of the stories that I tell in the book tells of stopping
by… driving along the Pacific coast highway along the ocean
coast, and around sunset we stopped to admire the sunset on the
beach and we could see the waves hitting the beach… the
beautiful sunset… and I appreciated it greatly, don’t get me
wrong… but my husband saw something else.”

(13:00)  “That’s Dan Meyer, and I love him.” 
“... and I followed a lot of his prescriptions for how to fix
calculus class, which is having a context, you know, creating my
own problems.”

(14:07) “... because even though I learned some basics, I’m
certainly not going to be acing the AP calculus exam anytime
soon… that’s not the point.”

(16:26) Science and Entertainment Exchange

(18:19) “... the old problem with Hollywood and science was, in
part, that it would depict the scientists as nerds, and geeks,
and sort of oddballs… you don’t really want to go near them. 
And when it came to Mathematicians on film, it would actually go
a step further, because they would be depicted as actually

(23:45) “... there was a chapter in the _Buffy_ book called the
physics of the fight, where I draw on [judo].”

Posted on Oct 02, 2010 at 1:16pm by jump_in_the_pit Comment #5