Of Craps and Calculus

Craps Jennifer Ouellette on the research for her upcoming book:

Few science bloggers have the good fortune to write off a Vegas trip as “research”, but that’s exactly what it was: my next book for Penguin is all about my experiences as a former English major learning calculus, inspired by a series of blog posts I wrote in 2006. (Current working title: Dangerous Curves: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Calculus. “Love” is rather a strong word. “Grudging appreciation” would be more accurate, but it just doesn’t make for a snappy subtitle.) It’s a testament to how far I have come over the years in breaking out of the kneejerk “mathogynist” mindset that I would even contemplate writing such a book, never mind relish the prospect. Perhaps that’s because my pedagogical approach flies in the face of how the subject is usually taught; in fact, the Spousal Unit once observed that I was learning calculus “inside out.” (He could have said “ass backwards,” but he’s far too polite.)

It all started with an impulse purchase of a series of DVD lectures offered by the Teaching Company: “Calculus Made Clear,” with a math professor at the University of Texas, Austin, named Michael Starbird. (He also has a DVD lecture series on probability.) The Spousal Unit noted approvingly that there were actual equations/derivations involved in the lectures, so it wasn’t just a lightweight “concept” course. Whatever. The two need not be mutually exclusive; a truly good teacher, like Starbird, will include both. He presented the underlying concepts beautifully, plus he told little historical anecdotes along the way about Buffon’s Needle, the Newton/Leibnitz debate, Archimedes, even the famed “Dido’s Problem” in the Aeneid. Nothing makes an English major happier than a strong, compelling narrative. Give us a good story, and we’ll follow you anywhere — even into the minefield of solving scary equations.

Ever the supportive partner, the Spousal Unit started leaving me simple calculus-related exercises on our resident white board in the mornings, just to shake off the dusty cobwebs of the math portions of my brain. I brushed up on geometry and algebra — which reminded me how much I’d genuinely enjoyed geometry in high school, before I bought into the whole “mathogynist” self-identity. (Who knows where that came from? I earned straight A’s in all my math and science classes.) And I took on some supplementary reading, including books by John Allen Paulos, Jason Bardi’s The Calculus Wars (a history of Newton and Leibnitz), and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Calculus. (The latter should perhaps be renamed The Half-Wit’s Guide to Calculus, since it assumes a bit more knowledge than the average adult recovering mathogynist has at his/her fingertips. That high school trig class was a long time ago….)