Math For Killing Zombies

The Fiction Addiction

I’m pretty sure being a professor at a small college is the best way to survive the collapse of society.  History professor John Matherson survives in One Second After, and teacher assistant Olive does just fine An Etiquette Guide To The End Times.

In Zombies and Calculus, by Colin Adams, math professor Craig Williams mistakes the first of zombie hordes for a chronically-late student, until that student starts trying to eat his former classmates. As the zombies destroy campus and attack anything that moves, professor Williams and his allies must use math to defend themselves.

The characters, holed up in an office while zombies feast outside, work out the increasing curve of zombie infection rates, based on population, speed of infection, and — rather calmly — how many people the zombies will eat before running out of fuel. They also use physics and more math to design some improbable improvised weapons, although, naturally, the professor who manages to get and shoot a handgun completely forgets about the recoil.

You don’t actually need a calculus background for this book. Basic algebra and an interest in math applications is enough to follow the clear and straitforward explanations, and to enjoy the zombie-focused challenges. This is a modernized version of Zeno’s Paradoxes, little brainteasers imagining math concepts in daily life. The Greeks imagined speedy Achilles trying to overtake a hypothetical tortoise, but we prefer to imagine a bicyclist chased by zombies in a perfect circle.

Characters are not particularly well-developed, and there are a few moments where that cried out for a little introspection. (Naturally, a good person tries to save others from certain death at the hands of hungry zombies, but are you obligated to save an unpleasant colleague? What if it requires personal risk? What if he previously opposed your tenure?) But, overall, the characters are essentially friendly placeholders in mathematical models, and if there’s a little tell-not-show in clunky backstories, all you really need to know is that they’re the good guys using their creativity and math skills to escape from predictable and mathless  zombies.

This is a quick, fun read about academics escaping the undead, and a good answer to any student’s question about the applications and relevance of higher math.

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