Zombies and Calculus, by Colin Adams

Maths problems are given an unusual twist when the living dead invade, says Noel-Ann Bradshaw

October 23, 2014

To echo the opening line of Colin Adams’ latest book, this review is not for the squeamish. An unusual beginning, certainly, but this is a rather unusual book. Picture the scene: a university mathematics lecture on differentiation is under way, with keen students at the front and others towards the back. A latecomer enters, looking slightly the worse for wear, possibly after a late-night drinking session. But instead of sitting down, he makes straight for a young woman in the front row and bites a chunk of flesh out of her neck. I did warn you to expect unpleasantness…

Set in a small liberal arts campus in Massachusetts at the outbreak of an epidemic that turns people into the marauding undead, Adams’ “zombie adventure novel” contains some rather graphic descriptions of human mutilation. But what distinguishes it from other recent zombie-themed titles – Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and the like – is that its (non-zombie) characters deploy mathematics to explain the spread of disease, show how zombies travel, calculate the optimal size and weight of home-made anti-zombie weapons and recommend essential tactics for surviving a zombie attack.

This is not an entirely new application of mathematics. As Robert Smith?, well known for his publications on the mathematical modelling of zombie epidemics, says, “Zombies aren’t just a piece of frivolity. There are important lessons to be learned that can help us understand just how useful mathematics can be.”

While a degree of implausibility is clearly par for the zombie-book course, I still find it rather improbable that a group of university staff and students under attack from flesh-eating hordes would pause to analyse and explain the relevant maths to each other. Well, perhaps some mathematicians you know might do so, but I can’t quite believe that any academic who succeeded in throwing a zombie down a stairwell would stop to time its fall so that he could calculate (for no apparent reason in this case) the height of the stairwell. And when trapped in a Portaloo with a biologist, surrounded by zombies, would any mathematician really pass the time discussing ways to model the spread of disease?

Adams is well known for his comic mathematical tales, many of which appear in the 2009 volume Riot at the Calc Exam and Other Mathematically Bent Stories. While I enjoyed the quirkiness of this book’s conceit and was mildly intrigued by the plot, some readers may find neither the tale nor the mathematics stimulating enough. Nevertheless, the unusual and clearly explained mathematical set-pieces are appealing: for example, finding the best direction for the dean to travel to escape a pursuing group of zombies is an attractive mathematical puzzle.

Still, I’m not entirely sure who this book is for. Some humorous asides will appeal to those with experience of higher education and mathematics politics, such as the references to university funding and to the interplay between pure and applied mathematicians, but the target audience may well be those considering whether to read mathematics at university level. Generally the maths is well explained (with advanced material in an appendix) and would be of use to anyone taking A-level maths (or Calculus 1 and 2 in the US). For mathematicians involved in schools outreach work, some of the examples might serve as accessible and entertaining content for taster lectures.

It could also appeal to those providing mathematics support for higher education students from other disciplines, as it is often useful to find relevant and engaging examples on which to hang these mathematical concepts. In my role as a regional coordinator for the Sigma Network I will be recommending this book to colleagues. Let’s hope they’re not squeamish.

Zombies and Calculus

By Colin Adams
Princeton University Press, 240pp, £16.95
ISBN 9780691161907 and 9781400852017 (e-book)
Published 15 October 2014

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