Blog Bio Books Write Contact PubSq

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

By Jennifer Ouellette

Illustrated by Jason Torchinsky

Every equation tells a story

Were you traumatized by high school calculus? Does the mere mention of integrals and derivatives make you queasy?

Jennifer Ouellette feels your pain. She 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. And she's here to tell you that the mysteries of calculus aren't nearly so scary when they're faced head on.

The Calculus Diaries is the fun and fascinating account of her year spent confronting her math phobia. With wit and verve, Ouellette shows how she learned to apply calculus to everything from gas mileage, diet, and the rides at Disneyland, to surfing in Hawaii, shooting craps in Vegas, and warding off zombies famished for tasty fresh brains. Along the way, she proves that even the mathematically challenged can learn the fundamentals of the universal language.

Hear Jennifer Ouellette chatting with host Ira Flatow about The Calculus Diaries on NPR's Science Friday (Download)

Barnes and Noble

And check out the Facebook page!


"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.'" --Discover

"Jennifer Ouellette makes maths palatable using a mix of humour, anecdote and enticing facts. She describes how she overcame her own phobia of numbers and how maths forms the basis of modern life. Using everyday examples, such as petrol mileage and fairground rides, Ouellette makes even complex ideas such as calculus and probability appealing." -- Nature

"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

"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. --A.J. Jacobs, New York Times bestselling author of The Know-It-All and The Year of Living Biblically

"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

"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.

"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 ofZero: Biography of a Dangerous Idea.

"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 Antonin 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 and Apollo's Fire: A Day on Earth in Nature and Imagination.

"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; Head of the Program on Writing and Humanistic Studies and Director of the Graduate Program in Science Writing at MIT

"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

"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


"Why Does Math Matter?" Interview with Swati Pandey of Zocalo Public Square (video)
Talking calculus at The Big Idea, for John Scalzi's Whatever blog
Talking math phobia with Yahoo!Shine
Advice for parents to help kids avoid math anxiety for Rachel Simmons

Table of Contents

Prologue: I Could Be Mathier
1: To Infinity and Beyond
2: Drive Me Crazy
3: Casino Royale
4: The Devil's Playground
5: Show Me the Money
6: A Pox Upon It
7: Body Heat
8: The Catenary Tales
9: Surfin' Safari
Epilogue: The Mimetics of Math
Appendix 1: Doing the Math
Appendix 2: Calculus of the Living Dead


Long-time readers of Cocktail Party Physics know that The Calculus Diaries arose out of a series of calculus-related blog posts I wrote starting in 2006. Here's a sampling for those who missed them:

I Could Be Mathier
To Infinity and Beyond
Deriver's Ed
Picture This
Calculus is Craptastic
The Devil's Playground
Game Changer


Want to delve a bit more? Here's a couple of lists via Amazon's Listmania showcasing some of my favorite math-inspired books -- one for nonfiction, and one for fiction.

My Favorite Popular Math Books
Math Inspired Fiction


All illustrations in the main text are by Jason Torchinsky, a writer and illustrator based in Los Angeles, except the following:

Fig. 0: Woodcut depicting the death of Archimedes, from Livius, Romische Historien (1546). Source: Ptak Science Books. Public domain.

Fig. 3A: Gerolamo Cardano. Source: Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

Fig. 6C: Woodcut depicting the Black Plague in medieval Europe, from the Toggenburg Bible (1411). Source: Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.

Fig. 7B: James Prescott Joule's apparatus for measuring the mechanical equivalent of heat. Harper's Monthly Magazine, No. 231 August 1869. Source: Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.

Fig. 10: Johann Pestalozzi, circa 1790. Source: Wikimedia Commons. Scanned from Die groen Deutschen im Bilde (1936) by Michael Schonitzer. Public Domain.

All illustrations in Appendix 1 generated by Sean M. Carroll using Mathematica. Zombie illustration in Appendix 2 by Jason Torchinsky.