Jennifer Ouellette – Calculus, Las Vegas, and the Zombie Apocalypse

September 24, 2010

Ever wonder about the mathematical basis for battling a zombie infestation? Jennifer Ouellette has. In her new book The Calculus Diaries, the English major turned science journalist goes on an odyssey to relearn the branch of math that so intimidated her in high school.

Along the way, she finds calculus in activities ranging from surfing, to catching fly balls, to playing craps in Vegas.

Naturally, calculus can also tell us how to stop the marauding zombies before they take over the human population for good.

At a time when the U.S. lags in science and math education, a book like Ouellette’s—making math intriguing and accessible—is more than a good read. It’s an educational necessity.

Jennifer Ouellette is the author of three books: Black Bodies and Quantum Cats: Tales from the Annals of Physics, The Physics of the Buffyverse, and most recently, The Calculus Diaries. She has also written widely, blogs at “Cocktail Party Physics,” and until recently was director of the Science and Entertainment Exchange, a National Academy of Sciences project to bridge the gap between the research community and Hollywood.

Today’s show is brought to you by Audible. Please visit Audible podcast dot com slash point to get a free audio book download. This is Point of Inquiry for Friday, September 24th, 2010. 

Welcome the point of inquiry. I’m Chris Mooney point of inquiry is the radio show and podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values in public affairs. And at the grassroots at the outset, I want to remind you that point of inquiry is sponsored by audible dot com. Audible is the Web’s leading provider of spoken audio, entertainment, information and educational programing. The site offers 75000 books for download to your computer, iPod or c.D. And it wants to give you one of them for free. All you have to do is go to the following Web site, audible podcast, dot com slash point and get your free ebook download. Could there be any possible reason not to. Ever wonder about the mathematical basis for battling a zombie infestation? Jennifer Willette has in her new book, The Calculus Diaries, this English major turned science writer goes on an odyssey to relearned the branch of math. It’s so intimidated her in high school. Along the way, she finds calculus in activities ranging from surfing to catching fly balls to playing craps in Vegas. And, of course, calculus can also tell us how to stop the marauding zombies before they take over the human population for good at a time when the U.S. lags in science and math education. A book like Willett’s is more than a good read. It’s an educational necessity. Jennifer Willette is the author of three books, Black Bodies and Quantum Cats Tales from the Annals of Physics, The Physics of the Buffyverse and most recently, The Calculus Diaries. She’s also written widely blogs at Cocktail Party Physics and until recently was director of the Science and Entertainment Exchange, a National Academy of Sciences project to bridge the gap between the research community and Hollywood. 

Jennifer Willette, welcome to Point of Inquiry. Thanks for having me. 

It’s great to have you on. And previously you did The Physics of the Buffyverse. Now you’ve written on that most daunting of subjects calculus. I guess my first question isn’t really a question as much as a request. Make me care about calculus. 

I know it’s tough, isn’t it? Most of us really don’t think it’s all that relevant. But in fact, calculus is very, very creative. It can reveal a hidden working patterns of the world. Sometimes our eyes can deceive us. Sometimes we think the world works one way, but the math reveals something else. And I talk about several examples of that in the book. But more importantly, I think it’s a very good tool for critical thinking. I made this point repeatedly recently at a dragon con of the skeptics track that think about what you’re doing when you create your own calculus problem. I’m not talking about what you do in the classroom. I’m talking about going out into the world, looking around you in saying where’s the calculus here? How can I use math or calculus to solve this problem? And that process of sifting out extraneous information, focusing on what’s important, you know, applying numerical values to something and putting that into a mathematical formulation in the form of an equation that is the essence of logic, of critical thinking. 

So after people have read your book, they can go out into a grassy field and they can suddenly see the numbers and patterns behind everything. 

Well, I’m not trying to teach them calculus, but I would hope that it would open their eyes a little bit because it certainly changed my perspective. I’m married to a physicist, and one of the stories that I tell in the book tells of stopping by. We driving along the Pacific Coast Highway along the the ocean coast and around sunset, we stopped to admire the sunset on the beach and we could see the waves hitting the beach and the beautiful sunset. And I appreciated it greatly. Don’t get me wrong, but my husband saw something else. I mean, he leaned in and he made this wonderful comment. He goes. Wouldn’t it be fascinating to take a for a transform of those waves? And afore you transform is just a mathematical equation that takes a complex wave front and then breaks it down in its component waves. It’s a way of analyzing the natural phenomenon. And the point I make when I tell the story is that while I could appreciate the sunset because Shawn was mathematical literate, because he spoke the language of nature, he saw something in that scene that I missed. This underlined pattern, this underlying order. So calculus and math can enrich our lives in ways that we probably don’t realize. I certainly didn’t realize it until I started this journey. 

Maybe you didn’t at first see that pattern because like me, your college English major. 

Exactly. And I’m definitely one of those people whose eyes glaze over at the first sight of a mathematical equation. You know, my brain shuts off when the numbers start. So it was it took tremendous discipline to write this book. 

I don’t remember much about calculus myself. Besides that, in high school, I memorized whatever I was taught about what kind of mathematical transformations, etc. I was supposed to do. And I got A’s, actually, but I don’t think I understood what I was doing ever. I just sort of found a way to beat the system. 

Right. And that that’s that is certainly how I got A’s in my math classes. I never took calculus, but I certainly took algebra, advanced algebra. And that’s exactly my experience. I mean, I was able to memorize certain key points. I was able to figure out the patterns and basically follow the rules. But I had no idea why I was doing it, why it was significant, what the context was supposed to be. And I think that’s a flaw, actually, in how calculus is taught. 

Well, tell us let’s just get the basics out there. What is calculus? What does it tell us? It’s really actually quite simple, right? 

Yes, it is. I mean, it’s a way of mathematically analyzing. Measuring change in motion. And that means that it applies to almost everything in life. Anytime you’ve got a quantity changing in relation to another, that’s calculus. So, for example, if you’re driving along and you know how fast you’re going at every point in time, you can add all of that together and take an almost infinite tiny little bits of speed together. You add them up and you can get your final position. Things like that. It’s a way of transforming one kind of problem into another. So if you have incomplete information, you can deduce what you need to know. So it’s very useful, but it’s just a tool. It’s just one tool among many. And I think part of what the book tries to do is demystify calculus. It’s not some really scary advanced thing that we should all worry about. It’s actually just one very simple tool. It’s a hammer. And there’s also screwdrivers, wrenches and all these various things. It’s just one tool in our mathematical toolbox. 

So this book is also a story, right? The story of how you went about teaching yourself calculus. So what were some of the more memorable moments of this experience? 

Surfing in Hawaii was definitely up there, that that’s where I decided to really delve into wave dynamics, which, of course, isn’t just water waves. It also applies to sound waves and light waves, any kind of wave phenomenon in nature. But I got to go to Hawaii and learn how to surf, and I wiped out quite a bit. But it really did. I mean, these scientists who took me surfing basically said, if you really want to understand wave dynamics, you really need to be out there on a surfboard because you can feel it. And he’s absolutely right. We also went to Las Vegas. I dragged my physicist husband out to Vegas and we learned how to play craps. And we talked about the calculus of probability theory. There actually is a way of figuring out how many times you’re likely to get a win to either win or lose in a session of craps. And you can do a standard bell curve to figure that out. And I drag him to Disneyland, which I think was the other big high point because he’d never been. And I felt that he should experience this form of Americana. And he felt that I should realize that when we ride Space Mountain, we can use calculus. And it’s a classic standard calculus problem because in Space Mountain you can’t see where you’re going because it’s dark, but you can feel the effects of acceleration. Turns out that the eye pad has an app. You can actually download an app for an accelerometer. It will measure your acceleration. It’ll create a mathematical function for that. And from that, you can take an integral, a double integral and figure out and retrace your steps and figure out your path, which I thought was pretty awesome. 

Wow. So it sounds like you’ve also figured out, well, this old writer trick of Gettings who travel under the pretense of doing work. 

Yeah, I had to be very careful, though, because I didn’t get a huge advance. I didn’t want to lose it all at the craps table. 

And you also say you got interested in calculus partly through intriguing historical anecdotes from the scientists or mathematicians who really discovered it. Can you tell us a bit about those? 

Oh, yeah, I’m a big fan of story and I love history. I mean, one of the things that got me really into physics in particular was just these fantastic stories that I encountered that I just never learned in high school classes in science. And it turns out that math has their share of stories as well. I think I opened the book with Archimedes. He was definitely one of the people. He came within a hair’s breadth of inventing integral calculus two thousand years before Isaac Newton. And then he got killed before he could finish developing that idea a little bit further. But there was also some wonderful it turns out the entire field of probability theory was funded by wealthy patrons of scientists who had gambling problems and essentially wanted the scientists that were in their pay to help them win more at their dice games, which I thought was fascinating. And then you had the Bhanumati brothers who were this leading mathematical family in Germany who just fought with each other constantly and must have been terrible for family relations. But the fact that they were so competitive meant that they made some really amazing advances, particularly since calculus was very, very new at the time, and they were among those who helped popularize it. 

Well, I agree that the history of science can help make a lot of this accessible. And you’ve made me want to go back into India, especially the gambling story in particular. 

I wonder if that was, you know, the French enlightenment or something. 

Yeah, maybe they were all inveterate gamblers. And as a result, probability theory is kind of steeped in games of chance. And, you know, Vegas, of course, makes a killing on this. 

Well, I want to let listeners know that Jennifer will. New book, The Calculus Diaries, is available through our Web site, point of inquiry dot org. You say in the book that roundworms actually do calculus and outfielder’s do it instinctually to catch a fly ball. So is this something that evolution can actually program organisms to be able to perform? 

Well, I’m not sure that’s how it works. I think we do Calcutta’s for doing it on a very conscious level. And so it’s clumsy and time consuming, but that is. Exactly what your brain is doing when you are when you are trying to catch a fly ball, your your brain is analyzing the trajectory of that ball. So you know where to stand. And you know that from experience over time, you kind of learn to like assess that distance. And with practice, you know, good outfielders, you know, develop a very, very good eye. Their brains are very, very good at doing that. What roundworms do is they are sensitive to changing salt concentrations in soil and that’s how they navigate. So they take a derivative of a derivative is basically trying to, you know, see what the difference is, a changing quantity, in this case, salt concentration. And depending on whether it is a higher concentration or lower concentration will depend where the worm goes looking for its food. And in fact, comparison shopping is essentially a form of calculus. One of the chapters details are adventures buying a house. And what do you do? You have to say you have an infinite number of houses to choose from. How do you find the optimal combination? You look for the variables that are important to you. You assess them a certain amount of weight or numeric value. What’s important to you? And then you can create a calculus problem out of that. Most of us don’t quantify it. But in fact, that is the process we go through to when we do comparison shopping. So, again, conceptually, I think we are all familiar with processes of calculus. We all are familiar with change in motion and how things change in relation to each other. We just don’t realize that’s the essence of calculus. 

Well, let’s talk about why we need a book like yours. Math education in the United States is not exactly up to par. You quote one math teacher who says, I’m selling a product that nobody wants, that everybody’s forced by law to buy. 

Right. That’s Dan Meyer. And I love him because he took what he’s talking about in terms of reforming math class is very similar to what I did, not even knowing. I mean, I was just basically trying to find a way to make calculus interesting for me and hence for my readers. And I followed a lot of his prescriptions for how to fix calculus class, which is having a context, you know, creating my own problems. A lot of this happened where, you know, Shawn and I would go say surfing and we would have a discussion about the processes involved and what makes something a calculus problem versus a different kind of mathematical problem. And how would I take this experience and turn it into an interesting question? That kind of discussion really enriches a classroom environment. And I think that’s kind of what’s missing. 

You used the word math here, which as an English major, I’m not sure it’s allowed, but let’s say that it’s allowed. 

It’s up to reference. 

So how do we. This is how we get math here. We give much more context to why we’re doing the problems. 

Yeah. Yeah, I think so. When I say that we should all be math here. I’m not saying we should all be calculus whizzes, because even though I learned some basics, I’m certainly not going to be acing the AP calculus exam anytime soon. That’s not the point. It gets back to my earlier point about critical thought, about really being engaged in thinking about the world around us and being able to see the hidden patterns that are there if we can just open our eyes. And that is what I mean when I say we should be math here. It’s not about passing some test. It’s not about getting an A in your calculus class. 

It’s about enriching your life and deepening your perspective in terms of people being discouraged from math or being turned off of math. It’s a particularly a problem for for young girls. Not only is there not a lot of encouragement to be into this, but there’s probably negative reinforcement to not be. 

Yes. Yes, that actually is true. It’s interesting because I absorbed the girls aren’t as good at math message, even though no one ever told me that explicitly. But a lot of my own experiences had less to do with gender, although that was certainly part of it and more to do with a certain kind of anxiety that attached itself to numbers early on. It gets back to what you and I were talking about, that we were very we got A’s in our math classes because we were very good at memorizing and picking up patterns, but we didn’t actually understand the material. And because I knew I didn’t understand it, I lived in a constant fear of being found out. And so this anxiety kind of attached itself to that. And I think that that is what happens over and over again with any kind of math phobia, whether it’s male or female. It’s particularly pronounced for women because there are social and cultural elements at play there that kind of makes a little more intense for them. But it’s always comes down to a negative experience that colors our perceptions and our emotional response to the subject. And it follows us into adulthood. I mean, I think the nicest thing that came out of writing this book was that I no longer shudder when I see an equation. 

I actually kind of want to see if I can figure it out. That is a huge step for me. 

I still shudder. But I did conquer it a bit because I did this book about hurricanes. And so there were so many meteorological equations that eventually I sort of did try to understand what they were talking about. And once I realized that an equation is sort of a sentence with, you know, a verb in it, then it made a lot more sense than it ever did in high school. But I also think you need. Roll up a little bit. Yeah, really see that if I could shift gears, you were until recently head of the Science and Entertainment Exchange, which is a project of the National Academy of Sciences to unite science and the entertainment community. Could you tell us a little bit about that and whether your Hollywood experiences have had any influence upon this book? 

Oh, sure. I mean, this is I just spent two years of my life with this program. Laughs. I’m still a huge fan of it. It’s essentially a means of building a grassroots community of Hollywood in science. What we found was when you match scientists with writers, producers, directors in Hollywood who care deeply about science and are interested in it, and they start brainstorming in creative ways to find ways to creatively work science into their films and their TV shows, that you get this wonderful synergy that develops. And so the program, the exchange is all about fostering that. And our first two years, we, you know, consulted on many, many films and television, including Iron Man two. Tron Legacy is coming out. Thor will come out next year. We’ve answered questions for the TV series Castle, which is a crime show. But there’s a lot of science in crime and Caprica and Fringe and some of these other shows that have a scientific component to them face to. I’m not going to be involved in that, but I’m very excited about it because I can see that now we’re looking at how to broaden that a little bit into some of the online multimedia and marketing and doing a lot more science behind the scenes kind of featurettes to help educators in particular draw on their students inherent interest in entertainment, maybe bring some of this into the classroom and give teachers some tools to engage their students interest to help them learn the science. That’s a huge undertaking, but we’re very excited about the potential for that. 

Sounds like a great idea. And the old problem. I think Hollywood, you would agree, is maybe changing. But the old problem with Hollywood in science was in part that it would depict the scientists as nerds and geeks and sort of oddballs. You don’t want to really go near them. And when it came to mathematicians on film, it would go a step further because they would be depicted as actually insane. Yes. 

I think so. You know, I go back and forth on this with a lot of people, and it’s a debate that I have a lot. I think that you still get some of those stereotypical images of scientists. But if you look at the broad field of how scientists and mathematicians are portrayed today in film and television, it’s much more diverse. You have many more women. You have many more ethnic minorities. You have people who are cool. People who are nerdy. People who are everything in between. You’ve got people who are short, people who are fat. You know, I like seeing that kind of diversity. So I think it is changing. More importantly, I think that we’re seeing a much more openness and willingness of Hollywood. They understand that science can actually give them new story ideas, interesting new innovative twists on old genres. I think because the success of CSI and science fiction and some of these other shows out there have kind of proven that this is a commercially viable model. It also appeals to their bottom line. As long as science can help Hollywood’s bottom line, they’re there. And I think that that it’s been shown to be the case. 

Another thing that Hollywood does is make lots of movies about zombies, including Dead Alive, which is the one I like the best in which I looked this up. They fight the zombies with a lawnmower and the scene required, according to the Internet movie database, five gallons of fake blood per second. It’s hard to get that in there, but your book apparently speaks to the zombie issue, although I don’t think listeners will quite understand how. So can you tell us about how calculus can explain zombie behavior? 

Sure. I mean, remember that calculus deals with change and motion. In this case, we’re talking about change in population dynamics. Namely, you know, that the growth in the zombie population is essentially a calculus problem. And that’s kind of what we’re talking about. And there is a field called epidemiology that studies how diseases spread. The modern zombie genre certainly does treat the zombie phenomenon as a type of disease. I think I think in Zombieland, they actually said it was a variant of mad cow disease gone bad that was affecting human beings and. And how rapidly it spread. And I interviewed an epidemiologist at the University of Ottawa named Robert Smith, who has actually taken these standard models used by disease specialists and applied it to zombies with his students. It’s just a way of kind of getting them excited about it. And it resulted in actual paper. And he found, first of all, the zombie is going to wipe us out in about four days if we do nothing. So we really do want to do something. And then he used his mathematical models to assess various strategies for beating them back to find the best one. You want to find the optimal strategy. And again, calculus can help. And so that book kind of gives you a summary of what he did there. And the answer, of course, turns out to be the zombie. And approach, you want to hit hard, hit fast. Hit often. You want to wipe as many out as possible. You want to just kind of nut up or shut up and, like, get lock and load. It was a lot of fun. But as fun as that discussion is, what I loved about Robert Smith’s work is that it’s based in reality. And in fact, he used a very, very similar model when he did a paper on HIV. The Canadian government had proposed a scheme to wipe out HIV that called for a certain amount of money, millions of dollars extended over a 15 year time period. And he says that’s not good enough. That’s not going to do it. You’ve got to hit them hard and fast in the first five years or you’re not going to wipe out HIV. It’s just like the zombies. It just spreads too fast. So to me, that’s like a fun topic that also has a very real world application that matters to all of us. 

I would hardly agree with you, although I then have to go farther and ask, you know, obviously, what about the growth of the vampire population? Because, you know, you’ve written about about Buffy, too. That would be a different, different kind of curve. 

Yeah, it would be. You know, it’s funny because I’ve read those papers. There’s been a couple of papers about vampire populations and the difference there. It depends on which, you know, I’m going to sound crazy here. But I mean, you have to look at the law and what the rules are. In this case, the rule is, you know, anyone who gets bitten by a zombie turns into a zombie and it gets infected. Vampirism is something different. Most vampire lore today is not just anyone who gets bit becomes a vampire. That’s not true. There’s this whole ritual, a process in order to turn someone into a vampire. And that slows down the the turnover rate. And no one should say the rate at which human beings turn into vampires is much lower. There has been an analysis of who would win vampires or zombies, you know, in a population growth fight. And it turns out the zombies would still win because of this unless the vampires teamed up with the human beings. 

So we probably are optimal strategy is to make friends with the vampires and wage war against the zombies. 

Well, I hope you told this to Hollywood before you moved on from from the current job, because I’m sure they would love that movie. 

Vampires vs. zombies, man. That would be very interesting. 

I want to let listeners know once again that Jennifer Willett’s new book, The Calculus Diaries, is available through our website Point of Inquiry dot org. I understand that you hold a black belt in jujitsu. Will your next book be entitled The Science of Kicking Ass? 

No. There was a chapter in the Buffyverse book called The Physics of the Fight, where I did draw on that. There’s a lot of physics in the martial arts in terms of just energy transfer and momentum and that sort of thing. Leverage, you know, your basic judo throw is essentially a fulcrum. 

Yeah, I’m seeing the potential here. Yeah. Oh, no. 

But, you know, when people have approached me about doing that, but I also you know, I think that you can actually find quite a bit written about the physics of the fight. It’s fascinating stuff. Who knows? There might be at least an article on that. But I did write the whole chapter and the people who are interested in getting a little introduction to the physics of the site could look at you could check that out. 

And calculus has also led you to change the iconic T-shirt that you wear. Can you tell listeners about that? 

Yeah. When I was when I was in college, I had that standard. You can still get it at standard T-shirt. The basics of English Major. You do the math. And I was very proud of that. You know, I was very belligerent and proud of my mathematical ignorance. But when I started learning calculus, my husband, Sean, who’s a physicist, basically said, you need a new attitude. And he bought me this T-shirt that I now wear with pride. Basically, he says, you messed with calculus. You messed with me. 

So, you know, I have I have to jujitsu chops to back that up. 

Well, let me just ask you one final question, if the calculus diaries were a movie, who would play you and what would be the plot? And maybe given how much you work with your husband Sean in this, maybe it would be calculus, a love story. 

It might be. But I was I think that it depended. But you skew young or old if you skew young, I can see like a young Ellen Page. And if you’re skewing a little bit older, more attorney would play me as opposed to a love story. I think I prefer a thriller. You could always get that love story element in there. But I always find that the you know, the the romance gets kindled easily when they’re trying to, like, solve a problem or escape from danger. So I see kind of like using math to solve a mystery, preferably one involving, say, a biochemical warfare or something that spreads. And you can actually use calculus and various kinds of math to like, you know, uncover the mystery. And you can also have chase scenes and action sequences surfing into or the rides at Disneyland. You know, I think I think it would make a fascinating movie. 

I’m sold now. Well, Jennifer, will that. Thanks for being a great guest on Point of Inquiry. It’s been a pleasure to have you now. Thanks for having me. 

I want to thank you for listening to this episode of Point of Inquiry to get involved in a discussion about Jennifer Willett’s new book, The Calculus Diaries. Be sure to visit our online forums by going to center for inquiry dot net slash forums, then clicking on point of inquiry. The views expressed on point of inquiry aren’t necessarily the views of the Center for Inquiry, nor of its affiliated organizations. Questions and comments on today’s show can be sent to feedback at point of inquiry. Gheorghe. 

Point of inquiry is produced by Adam Isaac in AMR’s, New York. And our music is composed by Emmy Award winning Michael Waylan. Today’s show also featured contributions from Debbie Goddard. I’m your host, Chris Mooney. 

Chris Mooney