Book review: Zombies & Calculus, by Colin Adams

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 18 October, 2014, 11:53pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 18 October, 2014, 11:53pm

Zombies & Calculus
by Colin Adams
Princeton University Press

A book which aims to teach university students the basics of calculus by integrating maths lessons with a story about a zombie attack may seem a ridiculous idea, but Zombies & Calculus by Colin Adams, a professor of mathematics at Princeton University, turns out to be quite brilliant.

Adams explains the basics of calculus in an easy-to-read manner while also telling a rip-roaring horror story which would put many novelists to shame. Readers will find this book an enjoyable and easily digestible introduction to calculus.

Calculus is a branch of maths developed by Isaac Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz that is used to measure the speed at which something changes. For instance, in Zombies & Calculus, it can tell you how fast you have to run to get away from a pursuing zombie horde, and how to calculate the speed at which a zombie virus will spread through the human population.

Calculus is used in all branches of physics, and differential calculus forms the language of important concepts such as Albert Einstein's general theory of relativity.

Adams' bizarre idea is to integrate lessons about calculus, complete with equations and diagrams, into a pulp fiction story about a mob of zombies invading a college campus. The calculus is discussed by the characters in specific situations when problems need to be solved.

Realising that readers will have different levels of mathematical understanding, the explanations are kept concise in the main text; Adams uses a diagram of a bloodied handprint to signify when they are expanded - still in the form and style of the novel - in an appendix. A basic introduction to calculus is also available in another appendix, presented as a conversation between two children.

The story is surprisingly gripping. Professor Williams is a maths professor at a small college in Massachusetts. When students and staff start biting big chunks out of each other's necks, he realises the school is being taken over by the undead. Gathering a small group of survivors, which includes a rival maths professor and some students, Williams has to work out how to escape from the school so he can rescue his two young children, who have locked themselves in their bedroom at home. To beat the zombies, Adams uses calculus.

The first chapter introduces the idea of the derivative (the rate of change of a function), which is fundamental to calculus. As the story progresses, other ideas are discussed.

Regardless of whether you learn any maths, Zombies & Calculus may be the most entertaining maths textbook ever written.