Carrie Bengston Reviews Zombies & Calculus

Review by Carrie Bengston

Zombies & Calculus

World War Z, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Shaun of the Dead and now Zombies & Calculus – the zombie genre, like its protagonists, just will not die.

In Zombies & Calculus, published last year by Princeton University Press, Colin Adams has pressed into service the shuffling, bloodthirsty undead to teach us some maths.

Zombies with a purpose

Adams’s book is written as a diary of college professor as a zombie apocalypse unfolds on his mid-western US college campus. Prof Craig Williams is teaching a calculus class and finds himself suddenly confronted “by a late-arriving student whose hunger is not for knowledge”. Unfortunately it’s one of his more talented students, Megan, who becomes the late-arriving student’s first victim.

As students and staff start to realise the grave (sorry, zombie pun) situation, the Prof and his colleagues use calculus to solve a variety of problems both immediate and long-term. They work out how quickly a victim becomes a zombie, how likely humans are to ultimately survive the apocalypse, what proportion of healthy brain the virus infects, and strategies to run from zombies.

My formal maths education finished in first year uni decades ago so I just got the overall gist of the maths rather than the detail. But for those with more maths it will be a great romp through calculus with appendices giving extra equations and a bibliography for those wanting even more. I’m pretty sure the mathematical scientists at CSIRO I worked with would love getting their teeth into (sorry, another zombie pun) the maths in this book.

Adams is clever to employ a zombie apocalypse scenario to demonstrate the usefulness of calculus and mathematics more broadly. Zombies sell and it’s well known that stories make facts and ideas more memorable. The characters’ conversations are largely about which mathematical concepts apply to the particular challenge at hand. Because we care about the characters, we want them to get the maths right.

Calculus in the loo

There’s plenty of humour to keep the reader interested even when the maths gets tough. For example, the Prof is trapped in a portaloo with a female colleague for six hours with zombies roaming outside. They use the time to discuss the biology and maths of viral infection while taking turns sitting on the lid of the loo.

My only complaints about Zombies & Calculus are the prevalence of personally-owned guns (but it is the US) and several of the women calling each other ‘bitch’. I’ve not seen overt bitchiness as part of the culture in mathematics.

An interesting point Adams makes in the book about women and maths is that one of calculus’s early public appearances was in recreational mathematics puzzles in an 18th century British ladies magazine, Ladies Journal. For women of that era, magazine maths would have been one of the few outlets for their intellect. In contrast, it’s refreshing that Adams has made sure that a number of the mathematicians in Zombies & Calculus are women.

Adams is himself a columnist for the Mathematical Intelligencer. With Zombies & Calculus, he has given those of us interested in mathematics, a great piece of recreational maths. For university lecturers, he’s provided an educational and entertaining resource that taps into popular culture. Now when asked by their students ‘Why do I need to know this?”, their answer can be “So you can survive a zombie apocalypse”.

Endnote: The review author’s own, very limited foray into writing about The Maths Behind a Zombie Apocalypse was to highlight mathematics’s usefulness for the international year of the Mathematics of Planet Earth.

Carrie Bengston

Carrie Bengston is a science communicator formerly with CSIRO. A bit of a tragic science nerd, she loves to see research findings reach a wider public and enjoys making that happen. She’s been a member of a book club in her community that reads fiction, occasionally fiction with a science bent, hence this book review.