Reading Diary: Zombies & Calculus by Colin Adams

Colin Adams's Zombies & Calculus is one of the coolest, funniest, most creative science books I've read in a very long time.

What's interesting about that statement is that we're not talking a non-fiction book here. We're talking a novel. Yes, a novel. Zombies & Calculus is pure fiction. Fortunately. Now I'm a big fan of the Walking Dead tv show and the comics too (though I'm a bit behind on the trade paperback collections) so I"m quite glad it's fiction. Basically, the premise of this novel is, "What if Rick Grimes had been a university math prof instead of a police officer."

The opening scene is a college math lecture hall where a couple of zombies wander in and start chowing down on the students. Chaos ensues but our hero Professor Williams, rallies the students and escapes. The rest of the novel is Williams using his math abilities to figure out what is happening to them all -- growth rates, zombie wandering trajectories, how hard you have to smack a zombie to kill it, predator-prey oscillation curves -- and hopefully increase their odds of survival because of that knowledge.

The story itself is pretty amusing, with quite a few of the bizarre and grotesque touches you would expect of any zombie novel. The body count is pretty high. The author isn't a brilliant novelist but easily has enough facility with both prose and narrative storytelling to make the book very entertaining. The characterization is a bit basic and one-dimensional but serviceable. The novel part is only about 150 pages and the relative brevity of the story definitely contributes to the success. Adams also manages to put in a few humourous jabs at academic life and campus politics, from the checked-out senior prof to the incompetent administrator, to give the story some satirical sting. There's even a touch of romance, if you can believe it. Not to mention, extended calculus lectures delivered in deadpan style while holed-up and hiding during the zombie apocalypse is in-and-of-itself flat out hilarious. (Some of the conversations with fellow survivors can be a bit laboured, especially in the appendices.)

As for the hard-core math part, there is quite a bit of very real calculus both embedded in the novel itself and in some rather more detailed appendices. If you're not comfortable with at least some level of equations and graphs, then this probably isn't a book for you. However, Adams does do a decent job of keeping the story flowing without too much digression into long info-dumps. One of the most interesting math parts was about the growth rates of the zombie population and how potential equilibrium of zombies and humans might be reached. Colin Adams definitely needs to be a math consultant on The Walking Dead, especially as the show gets further into the time scale of their apocalypse.

Overall, I can't recommend this book enough; it was one of my favourite science books of 2014. The more math you know, the more you will enjoy this book. The main audience is probably university math students and professors, so if you know one of those, this would make a great gift. As for library collections, this would be a great addition to any undergraduate math collection and could even be used as a teaching tool in first year calculus. Large public library systems would probably also find an audience for this book.

Adams, Colin. Zombies & Calculus. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014. 240pp. ISBN-13: 978-0691161907

(Review copy provided by publisher.)

16 responses so far

  • Monique Van Dyk says:

    This book sounds like a great way to make studying a lot more fun. I have applied calculus and the examples always range from the decrease in the amount of antibiotics in the human bloodstream or the crop production between 1985 and 2000. Using calculus to increase your chances of survival during a zombie apocalypse would definitely hold my interest a lot better. It is also something a wider range of people would be interested in. I think professors should consider using these types of books. Their students will be grateful.

  • Innocentia u13175662 says:

    This books sounds scary to me. Ofcours maths is our everyday subject. We use maths to figure out real life problem. One can only imagine how one can use calculus to figure out something about a zombie. It sounds like a very interesting book to read.

  • u14241308 M Matanhire says:

    i have always enjoyed and loved Mathematics especially the equations and graphs, n i cannot to read this book and found out how my favourite field was used to figure out somethings about zombies. Is it in stores yet?

  • Alone Joubert - 15102522 says:

    Can math actually do all of that? Wow, just when I thought math could not get any better! This book will motivate students to spend more time on studying for math, because no one wants to die by the hands of the walking dead. If I wanted to become such an amazing mathematician one day, what courses should I enroll in?

  • Mother Math says:

    The math content within the book is quite interesting, but it is very childish and full of fantasies, like another take on the movie "Warm Bodies". I would not recommend it to students who should rather focus on their actual studies.

  • Riechard van Dyk says:

    A very interesting book indeed. As a math enthusiast I enjoy learning new ways to apply math in our everyday lives. I struggled to find it in bookstores, but I found it on an online bookstore and downloaded it onto my laptop.

  • u15023088 says:

    What an amazing way to depict mathematics. This surely shows that there are no boundaries to writing novels or learning mathematics. Is it available only online?

  • Jenna Rheeders (u14220483) says:

    The book is also available in hardcover but I don't think it is in South Africa yet.
    I'm studying first year Calculus and I would love to read a book like this. It sounds like a very cleverly written book. There should be more books like this, but aimed at younger students (such as high school or primary school), to encourage mathematical thinking and show younger learners how interesting maths is.

  • Nehemia Mokgaliphe says:

    I don't think I would be understand the book what is on about since am also finding it difficult to understand Calculus in class.

  • ulrick von Liechtenstein says:

    boinos dias

  • Dewaal du Plessis - 14017769 says:

    This book is extremely interesting, it seems like Colin Adams wanted to prove a point: math is not as boring as it might seem! He also answered the old question of "where will I ever use this in real life?", in a zombie apocalypse, that's where! This is a creative way of raising people's interest in math whilst enjoying the experience.

  • Liam Goodall says:

    This is a very interesting book. I like the unconventional approach it brings to mathematics. Very handy for applying mathematics in real-life situations. Except for the fact that zombies do not exist in real-life. (15075924)

  • Greg says:

    A true recommendation as you indeed indicated. I believe that for math student this will equipe them with a reference frame with a sort of you that might jus aid them in dealing with calculus applications.

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  • Regomoditswe Pilane says:

    It is always very commendable when a fictional book serves for more than just entertainment. Although this book presents unreal events, it presents real calculus and the application of that calculus is practical and relevant. It is a reminder that the theoretical work we do on a daily basis actually has real life relevance as it can help solve many problems. Furthermore, the fact that it is exaggerated and imaginary work shows that it can be accessible to children and teenagers. In this way the paradigms of the children towards maths may change as they realise its applicability and its relevance.
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  • John Dupuis says:

    A huge greeting to all the students from the University of Pretoria that are responding to this post. Thanks so much for your time and energy.

    If you get a chance, please do connect me with one of your librarians and maybe we can find a way to get my copy of the book into your library. Once my son is finished with it, of course.

  • Siyanda says:

    This is such an interesting book it seems as it is the coming together of a horrible module, calculus and something I find very interesting like, Zombies. This book could also be of educational value as it may be a way to push a student to work hard with calculus so as to gain a better understanding of the book. It is excellent
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