Fun with calculus in a zombie novel

September 1, 2014
mathematics
You’ll laugh! You’ll cry! You’ll use calculus!
‘Zombies and Calculus,’ by Colin Adams

So much for kids who say, “When am I ever going to use calculus?” When you’re trying to survive the zombie apocalypse, that’s when.

Colin Adams, humor columnist for the Mathematical Intelligencer journal — has written a mostly tongue-in-cheek novel describing Day One of a zombie attack on a small liberal arts college. The narrator is math professor Craig Williams, leader of a group that fights the gruesome invaders using the tools of calculus: They determine, for example, that zombies always point their tangent vector toward their target and that exponential growth explains the rate at which the zombie virus is spreading.

If you don’t understand the preceding sentence, you are not alone. “This book is aimed at survivors who have seen some calculus already," the fictional Professor Williams writes in his introduction.“I can’t teach you all of calculus.” Nevertheless, even non-students can follow the math with the aid of appendices that are almost half as long as the novel. Discrete functions are explained by noting that a newly infected zombie does not infect anyone for 15 minutes and by creating an equation to figure out how many zombies can be created in the first hour after one zombie attacks. (The answer is 11. It’s actually pretty easy to follow.)

The book’s promotional blurbs come mostly from students: “It is both an introduction to assorted math concepts . . . and laugh-out-loud funny in many places,” says one from Bates College. “You’ll see calculus come alive in a way that could save your life someday,” says another from Harvey Mudd College.

Whatever it takes.

Math professor and narrator Craig Williams uses calculus to fight the living dead. (BIGSTOCK)
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