Book Review: Zombies & Calculus by Colin Adams

9 Dec

If you’re looking for a good zombie novel, then just keep looking. But if you’d like a light refresher on mathematical principles with a side of peril, or if you need a gift for somebody taking calculus or pre-cal who doesn’t mind a sprinkling of gore, then Zombies & Calculus may be a good pick.

The author, Colin Adams, is a professor at Williams College and the humor columnist for the Mathematical Intelligencer. He has written several other math-related books; this is his latest (published in September). A couple of videos starting here illustrate some of the scenarios in Zombies & Calculus, in case you want to get a sense of the book’s tone.

Zombies and Calculus

Z&C’s protagonist, Craig Williams, happens to be teaching a calculus class at a small college when one of his students comes in late and attacks another student. It turns out that this incident is part of a fast-spreading zombie epidemic. Williams and some colleagues hole up in an office and analyze the situation … and analyze it … There’s a lot of talking in this book.

The big stumbling block with Z&C is not the amount of talking, but the way the people keep listening patiently to mathematical lectures and even asking for further explanations as the zombie apocalypse continues. Certainly math professors may react to crises by becoming super-analytical, but I don’t know too many admin assistants who would take the time in such situations to argue that differential equations ought to be called derivatives equations — much as I liked that little semantic sidebar.

Speaking of time:  on page 16, Williams’ daughter begs him to hurry home, and he discusses derivatives, exponential growth, accelerative force, normal distributions, perpetual motion, pursuit vectors and mathematical history, and goes on a rescue mission for someone else before finally leaving campus some 70 pages later (not counting several appendices with even more details). I’ll grant that Williams is a good teacher, but as a father, this character leaves much to be desired.

None of the other Z&C characters are deep or have much of an arc; Williams’ academic rival Oscar Gunderson seems the most fully developed, but we never find out why he’s such a jerk (although I enjoyed picking up on hints of a certain relationship to which Williams apparently remained oblivious). However, the thumbnail descriptions are distinctive enough to keep all the people straight, and other than everyone’s propensity to interrupt the action and go off on tangents (I’ll pause for a groan here), they seemed consistent and believable.  I also liked that Williams is not the only one to contribute to the group’s survival. For example, Jessie, the biologist, explains predator-prey population dynamics, and even student Angus’ knowledge of baseball comes in handy.

But the characters aren’t really the point of the book; they’re not even there to advance the plot so much as they’re there to provide exposition opportunities. Similarly, there aren’t any fresh ideas about zombie mythology or apocalyptic coping strategies.

What the book does do quite well is present palatable, bite-sized, relatively easily digestible introductions to a variety of mathematical concepts in a reasonably entertaining way. Since the characters are in a setting with lots of chalkboards around, there are also numerous diagrams to help with the explanations. Sometimes the math gets pretty deep pretty fast, and I wouldn’t recommend this as a primary textbook for a beginner (although one of the appendices is a 30-page review of general calculus concepts), but as a mathematical supplement or refresher, Zombies & Calculus will satisfy most appetites.

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