• Review of Zombies and Calculus by Colin Adams

    by  • March 18, 2015 • Reviews • 0 Comments

    41A28ODX9bL[1]A review by Robert Dawson

    A few years ago, Seth Grahame-Smith, believing that Miss Austen’s Pride and Prejudice was insufficiently sensational, added zombies to the recipe. In the book under review, Dr. Colin Adams does the same for the zombie-apocalypse genre by adding calculus.

    Craig Williams (like Dr. Adams) is a math professor at a small New England college. One morning, one of his students comes in to class late and starts biting the other students. The zombie apocalypse has begun. But even with the world collapsing around him, and colleagues and neighbors dropping by for a bite at odd hours, Professor Williams finds ways to put his calculus skills to good use, helping his family escape.

    Calculus is used (among other applications) to determine the speed at which a zombie body cools, the force required to crack a zombie skull with a paperweight in a stocking, and how to herd zombies into a circle. Progressively more advanced differential equations are used to model the outbreak: first an exponential model for the initial hours, then a logistic model as the zombie population levels off, and finally the two-variable Lotke-Volterra model with its cyclic solution.

    The reader is warned that the solution found at the end of the novel may not work as well in real life. While most parts of Canada can get chilly at night, there are in fact no parts where the overnight temperature reliably falls to below freezing in August. Even in Yellowknife, in the Northwest Territories, the average daily low in August is around 283°K.

    The prose style is much the same deadpan humor found in Adams’ columns in the Mathematical Intelligencer. The emotion is somewhat flat–nobody seems plausibly horrified or frightened, and the ending is somewhat anticlimactic. This seems to go with the genre: truly sparkling didactic math fiction is rare. This book is not, in my opinion, quite at the level of Gardner, but a comparison with Shasha’s very readable “Dr. Ecco” books, or Knuth’s Surreal Numbers, might be appropriate.

    With books like this, there is always the question of whether the author is “preaching to the choir.” The book was loaned to a student now taking first-year calculus, and to a non-mathematician with a BSc in physics. Both read it in one sitting and enjoyed it. There are two appendices–one continues certain conversations that might have interfered with the flow of the story, the other gives the background details about calculus that could otherwise have ended up as an information dump. The author is to be congratulated on this decision; while the appendices are quite readable, they are better where they are.

    There’s no doubt about it: when the zombie apocalypse comes, the demand for brains can only increase!

    (This review is expanded from one by the same reviewer that appeared in Zentralblatt MATH. Just in case anybody thought Zentralblatt didn’t have a sense of humor or anything.)

    Zombies and Calculus can be obtain at Amazon and Princeton University Press,

    Robert Dawson teaches mathematics at a Nova Scotian university.  He claims that mathematics can be  useful in the real world. The book reviewed here may or may not support this point: you may judge for yourself.

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