CTK Insights

07 Oct

Review of "Zombies and Calculus" by Colin Adams

Colin Adams, author of the unique book "Zombies and Calculus", opens the book with a warning that "if you are squeamish you should not read the book." I venture an additional warning: if you lack a sense of humor, you should not read it either. As an afterthought, the author considers that, given the title of the book, there's little likelihood a squeamish person wold pick it up, in the first place. In my view, such thinking is a mistake - the first of two mistakes the author has committed. Many a student felt like a zombie in a calculus class. These might have shown interest in the book in the hope of finding an explanation to their experience. To these students I say, no, the book is about hard-core zombies - stiff-legged cannibals, entirely devoid of high mental functionality. The one thing on their mind is feeding on anyone yet alive and thinking. But, unlike in the movies featuring Milla Jovovich, in the book zombies have been observed to be tearing clothes off zombies of the opposite sex - in public and with an obvious intention. Unfortunately, the narrator - a college math professor - being followed by his former students and colleagues who now saw him only as a potential meal had not the time to further dwell on his observations.

One really needs a well developed sense of humor to read about a talented student who, with a chunk of her neck missing and the head at a weird angle, tries to grab her professor of a few minutes ago, and so had to be knocked down. On the other hand, every one would laugh at a delinquent student, oblivious of the surrounding dangers, who hands to the narrator (concerned with escaping a crowd of zombies in hot pursuit around the corner) his late homework. One again needs to summon one's sense of humor to read about the sad fate that befell the unthoughtful student short time after the encounter.

At the outset, I have mentioned that the author committed two mistakes. Here's the second one. Early in the story, several survivors of the initial attack, found themselves locked up in an office, with zombies moaning and banging into(?) each other just outside the door. Naturally there arose a question of active protection, and a girl removed her stockings to be filled with heavy objects that, when swung, could bring a zombie down. The narrator then cuts the stockings with scissors into two legs. However, as every grownup knows, stockings are already a two-piece item. Pantyhose is the one dress item that needs separation.

Stockings Pantyhose

The episode with the stockings serves to develop a conversation (and related mathematical tools) about speed, force, and the strength of human (i.e., zombie's) skull. As the story evolves, other mathematics comes in handy: equations of pursuit, logistic equation, predator-prey model, stationary point of a system of ODEs, Newton's Law of Cooling. Mathematics in the book is impeccable. However, from the incomplete list of topics, one may start suspecting (and justly) that the book should be more properly titled "Zombies and ODE" or "Zombies and ODE Modeling". (The author admits as much in the introduction by pointing to those who already learned calculus as his primary audience.) I do not count this as a third mistake, for this is a common marketing ploy to rely on a sound bite title to attract broader readership. And the book well deserves attention from not squeamish math instructors and a wider audience of intelligent readers, curious of a new literary genre that mixes storytelling with gentle mathematical instruction.

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