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The Calculus Diaries: How Math Can Help You Lose Weight, Win in Vegas, and Survive a Zombie Apocalypse Paperback – Bargain Price, August 31, 2010

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin (Non-Classics); Reprint edition (August 31, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0143117378
  • ASIN: B0053U7AOG
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.8 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (51 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,948,716 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews


"If, like me, you love the neatness of calculus but never appreciated its applications or the colourful characters who have used it through history, then these diaries are well worth a read."
-New Scientist

"In The Calculus Diaries, science writer Jennifer Ouellette makes maths palatable using a mix of humour, anecdote and enticing facts...Using everyday examples, such as petrol mileage and fairground rides, Ouellette makes even complex ideas such as calculus and probability appealing."

"This dash through a daunting discipline bursts with wry wit. Ouellette uses differential equations to model the spread of zombies, and derivatives to craft the perfect diet. Sassy throughout, she reserves special barbs for subprime mortgage holders: "Chances are they weren't doing the math."

"The Calculus Diaries 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!"
-Danica McKellar, New York Times bestselling author of Math Doesn't Suck and Hot X: Algebra Exposed

"I haven't had this much fun learning math since I watched The Count on 'Sesame Street' when I was three. And the Count never talked about log flumes or zombies. So The Calculus Diaries wins the day."
-AJ Jacobs, author of The Know-it-All: One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World

"Zombies? Surfing? Gambling? Nobody told me calculus could be like this. To my twelfth-grade math teacher: I demand a do-over!"
-Carl Zimmer, author of Parasite Rex and The Tangled Bank: An Introduction to Evolution

"Back in the day, when I was close to flunking out of calculus class because I couldn't understand why it was worth my valuable time to actually understand it, I needed someone like Jennifer Ouellette to gently explain how I wrong I was. She's like every English major's dream math teacher: funny, smart, infected with communicable enthusiasm, and she can rock a Buffy reference. In this book, she hastens the day when more people are familiar with an integral function than with Justin Bieber."
-Peter Sagal, host, NPR's "Wait, Wait Don't Tell Me," and author of The Book of Vice

"In this wonderful and compulsively readable book, Jennifer Ouellette finds the signature of mathematics -- and especially calculus, of course -- in the most unexpected places, the gorgeously lunatic architecture of Spain's Antonio Gaudi, the shimmering arc of waves on a beach. Just following her on the journey is the half the fun. But the other half is learning about the natural beauty and elegance of calculations. Ouellette's ever clear and always stimulating voice is a perfect match to the subject - and The Calculus Diaries is a tour de force."
-Deborah Blum, author of The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York

"As amusing as it is enlightening, The Calculus Diaries is no dry survey of abstractions. It's a guide to everyday life -- to car trips and roller- coaster rides, diet and exercise, mortgages and the housing bubble, even social networking. As Ouellette modestly recounts her own learning curve, she and her husband become characters alongside eccentrics such as Newton and Gaudi and William the Conqueror. Like a great dance teacher, Ouellette steers us so gently we think we're gliding along on our own."
-Michael Sims, author of Adam's Navel: A Natural and Cultural History of the Human Form

"Jennifer Ouellette's calculus confessional is a delight, and an example of the finest kind of science writing. Her book reveals to its readers the gritty inner workings of the most important idea humans have ever thought. (Yes, calculus is that big: it's all about understanding how things change in space and time, and there just isn't much more important than that.) Ouellette's wit, her elegant wielding of metaphor, and her passion for both math and funky culture produce this crucial insight: every equation tells a story, she says, and she's right, and the tales she tells here will captivate even the most math-phobic."
-Tom Levenson, author of Newton and the Counterfeiter

"Like the movies Batman Begins, Spider-Man, or Superman, The Calculus Diaries is the story of how an insightful, creative, and hard-working young person acquires superpowers and uses them for the benefit of society. Only this tale is true: Jennifer Ouellette can't fly or spin a web, but she can spin a yarn. The Calculus Diaries documents the author's seduction by mathematics and her conquering of it--Eureka!--to see the world with sharper vision. For too many people math, calculus in particular, is an albatross. But Ouellette reveals math for what it is, a powerful tool for solving problems and the exquisite language we use to describe nature. Reading this book will make you smarter. And more powerful."
-Eric Roston, author of The Carbon Age

"If you ever thought that math was useless, read this book. Want to survive a zombie attack? Win at craps? Beat a zombie at craps? Well, listen to Jennifer Ouellette. The math she describes might just be your best hope if you don't want your brains to be gobbled by the undead."
-Charles Seife, author of Zero: Biography of a Dangerous Idea

"A charming and gentle introduction to important mathematical concepts and their relevance to everyday life."
-Leonard Mlodinow, author of The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives

About the Author

Jennifer Ouellette is a card-carrying member of the National Association of Science Writers. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Discover, Salon, and Nature. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, Cal Tech cosmologist Sean Carroll.

More About the Author

I'm an English major turned science writer, through serendipitous accident. It's been a wild ride since I first dipped a toe into physics, and I wouldn't have it any other way. I've written articles about molecular mixology, eggshell physics, black holes, the game theory of poker, pseudoscience, fractal patterns in the paintings of Jackson Pollock, the science of yodeling, and the acoustics of Mayan pyramids, among other colorful topics, for places like The Washington Post, Smithsonian, Slate, Mental Floss, New Scientist, Discover, Salon, and Nature. I maintain a science-and-culture blog at Scientific American called Cocktail Party Physics. The latter is my "writers laboratory," where I explore new topics and ways to communicate science. That's also how I met my husband, Caltech cosmologist Sean M. Carroll, author of the fabulous "The Particle at the End of the Universe" and "From Eternity To Here: The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time").

I've written four popular science books, aimed at readers like me (non-specialists who appreciate stories with their science). The most recent is "Me, Myself and Why: Searching for the Science of Self," detailing my quest to illuminate everything that goes into shaping the people we become. Other books: "The Calculus Diaries : How Math Can Help You Lose Weight, Win in Vegas, and Survive a Zombie Apocalypse;" "The Physics of the Buffyverse"; and "Black Bodies and Quantum Cats: Tales from the Annals of Physics." I also edited the 2012 anthology "The Best Online Science Writing."

From November 2008 through October 2010, I was director of the National Academy of Sciences' program, The Science & Entertainment Exchange, founded to foster creative collaborations between scientists and the entertainment industry: I like to think I made a difference, but I also got to meet Ridley Scott. So that's a win-win in my book.

You can read more about me at my Website:, and at my blog:

Customer Reviews

I want to understand calculus, I really do, but this book is not going to do anything for me.
There are always comments about how calculus could help to understand a problem, but there's no follow-through.
Although the book is aimed at those who fear math, it can also be enjoyed by any general reader.
G. Poirier

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

140 of 147 people found the following review helpful By Personne VINE VOICE on August 7, 2010
Format: Paperback Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Americans don't get a very good education in math and science. While never great, it's plummeted over the last three decades. Many Americans--even those who are highly-educated in other areas--appear to take pride in this ignorance.

To her great credit, Jennifer Ouellette is having none of it. She has been making a career of filling the gaps, first in physics and now in mathematics. You don't have to be a professional mathematician to find that math enriches your view of the world. It's not always the conventional route that brings you that understanding, but good coaches and a bit of elbow grease will get you there. I have heard Ouellette interviewed on radio and podcasts and she seems to have the perfect personality to share this with a large audience.

I was disappointed to find that this book falls short of what it could have been. It starts out with great promise, setting a historical context with Archimedes and later figures. We soon move into a trip to Las Vegas. Ouellette lays out a number of interesting problems to consider, beginning with the speed and distance of the drive. After only the tiniest bit of math--all expressed verbally--we're on to the dice table and a discussion of probabilities. Maybe we'll have a little more math here, but were soon on to something else. There are always comments about how calculus could help to understand a problem, but there's no follow-through. This is a pattern that is repeated throughout the book. The section on zombies passes quickly through Jane Austin, parasitic fungus in ants and Malthusian population growth. The book becomes very much like a disjointed version of James Burke's "Connections" series from the 1970s.
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27 of 29 people found the following review helpful By Jojoleb VINE VOICE on August 28, 2010
Format: Paperback Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
The Calculus Diaries, by Jennifer Oullette, is kind of a `physics for poets' take on higher mathematics. Rather than confuse her math-phobic readers with tortuous equations and cryptic mathematical symbols, Oulette tries to help us understand the germ of the mathematical idea. She outlines the basic concepts and explains how calculus might be as elegant as a sonnet or jaunty villanelle. As ridiculous as this may sound, Oulette can really pull this off. After reading this book you may not become a mathematical genius but you will gain a deeper understanding of calculus' basic principles and an appreciation for how calculus stunningly describes the real world.

[A warning to science and math majors everywhere: this is a very basic book and it is not meant to supplement a lifelong study of calculus. The book helps the more mathphobic among us understand these elementary concepts. If you already understand these concepts this book will be far too basic for you.]

Oulette's approach is simple. First, she delves into a bit of interesting history for one of her topics. This serves to warm up her humanities-minded readers, giving them a sense of security with something that they can easily understand. She then segues into a real world problem--a road trip, an amusement park ride, casino games, or an epidemic--and, using concepts of limits, derivatives, and integrals, describes how calculus really helps you understand the world around you.

On the whole, she is successful at clearly explaining the broad concepts and is able to do this in an engaging and interesting way. You will leave the book with a much greater appreciation of mathematics and how calculus really does describe.
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38 of 45 people found the following review helpful By takingadayoff TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on August 8, 2010
Format: Paperback Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
First year college calculus was where I hit the wall, math-wise. I thought I was hot stuff because I'd breezed through algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and precalculus. I loved computer science, or what passed for computer science in the 1970s. I planned to major in math at university. So failing first year calculus was a shock to my ego and to my plans for the future.

Jennifer Oullette's book seemed like a chance to try again after all these years. No pressure, nothing to prove, just a chance to approach calculus again for the fun of it. She's a science-oriented journalist, so making complicated things clear is her job. She claims to have been wary of calculus herself, until she tackled it head on by taking a video course and getting help from her physicist husband.

The examples Oullette used resonated with me. Now I was going to learn that calculus is not only manageable, but relevant to my life. Her examples -- the drive from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, the Tower of Terror at Disneyland, the casinos of Las Vegas, the hunt for a house, the progress of Black Death and other plagues, the Barcelona architecture of Gaudí -- were topics I knew something about. All I needed to do was add a little calculus.

Sadly, once again I failed to fall in love with calculus. After the first few examples, I found myself protesting, "But you can use other kinds of math, simpler kinds of math to do these problems!" Sure, I realize that engineers and physicists need calculus to figure out exactly how much concrete to use or to plot the path of a planet. But will knowing calculus help me enjoy the rides at Disneyland more? Or decide which house to buy? Maybe I will have to learn to accept calculus for itself, rather than for its practical uses.
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