Making Calculus Palatable

December 31, 1998

WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass., December 31, 1998--Like parents inducing a child to swallow a pill by embedding it in ice cream, the authors of How to Ace Calculus: The Streetwise Guide make calculus palatable by smothering it with outrageous humor.

Published in August by W.H. Freeman, the conversational book by Colin Adams, Abigail Thompson, and Joel Hass has since been ranked one, two, or three on the list of calculus bestsellers.

"You probably didn't realize there was a calculus bestseller list," says Adams, the Mark Hopkins Professor of Mathematics at Williams.

Adams chairs the mathematics department at Williams College, while Hass and Thompson are professors at University of California at Davis.

In a roguishly witty, forthright style reminiscent of Dave Barry's, the authors canvass the gamut of calculus concerns.

Recognizing that a bad teacher can inspire one to "schedule dental appointments during calculus lectures because they are less painful," they commence with conspiratorial advice on professor selection. They suggest noting professors' ranks, from tenured ("cannot be fired, even if they are grossly incompetent") to "No door [on office]: Danger, danger."

A mix of jocularity and sound advice pervades The Streetwise Guide. The authors gently mock themselves throughout with anecdotes of absent-minded mathematicians, tales of lazy professors, and joking promotions for the book. The introductory chapters, for instance, admonish students to "butter up the professor early, before someone else beats you to it" but they also sincerely entreat students to do bonus problems and pore over old exams.

After this section of general advice, an approachable review of algebra and trigonometry segues into the tour of calculus.

Referring to the review, the authors confess, "Kind of scary, that all the math you learned in the past five years ... can be distilled into five pages." The conversational style that permits this feat also characterizes the rest of the book. The authors introduce terms like "limit" and "continuity" by describing their usage in everyday English, then extending those definitions to the realm of mathematical lingo. In the glossary, the origin is defined to be "the point in space with all coordinates equal to 0. Thought to be somewhere in Iowa."

From "Chain Rule: S&M Made Easy" to "Exponential Growth and Decay: Rise and Fall of Slime" and "Fancy-Pants Techniques of Integration," the chapters elucidate calculus' essential features through casual language and analogies to "real life." Functions become less intimidating as they assume human personalities. The authors concoct, for instance, a parabola with low self-esteem whose psychiatrist improves his figure with mathematical operations; they describe the hyperbola as "a curve in need of a sedative if ever there was one." They build elaborate examples around improbable scenarios, such as a tranquilized goat being carried uphill, that make complex math approachable.

Adams, Hass, and Thompson give students memorable, concrete images with which to associate mathematical concepts. Together with frequent, amusing anecdotes, these illustrations give students the rare experience of having to laugh while learning math.

Adams, recently named to the Mark Hopkins Professor of Mathematics chair at Williams, has received wide recognition for innovative teaching. He won the 1998 Deborah and Franklin Tepper Haimo Award for Distinguished College or University Teaching of Mathematics, given by the Mathematics Association of America in 1998.

In lectures around the country, he explains his research by assuming the character of Mel Slugbate, an aggressive real-estate salesman.

Adams' research focuses on topology, including knot theory; in 1994 he published The Knot Book: Introduction to the Mathematical Theory of Knots.

He earned his B.S. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1978 and his Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1983.
Williams College is consistently ranked one of the nation's top liberal arts colleges. Founded in 1793, it is the second oldest institution of higher learning in Massachusetts. The college of 2,000 students is located in Williamstown, which has been called the best college town in America. You can visit the college in cyberspace at

Williams College

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