Limits, schlimits: It’s time to rethink how we teach calculus

Enlarge / Twenty-eight tales make up this entertaining, illustrated exploration of the intersection between calculus and daily life. (credit: Ben Orlin)

Calculus has a formidable reputation as being difficult and/or unpleasant, but it doesn’t have to be. Bringing humor and a sense of play to the topic can go a long way toward demystifying it. That’s the goal of math teacher Ben Orlin’s new book, Change Is the Only Constant: The Wisdom of Calculus in a Madcap World, a colorful collection of 28 mathematical tales connecting concepts in calculus to art, literature, and all manner of things human beings grapple with on a daily basis.

His first book, Math with Bad Drawings, after Orlin’s blog of the same name, was published last year. It included such highlights as placing a discussion of the correlation coefficient and “Anscombe’s Quartet” into the world of Harry Potter and arguing that building the Death Star in the shape of a sphere may not have been Darth Vader’s wisest move. We declared it “a great, entertaining read for neophytes and math fans alike, because Orlin excels at finding novel ways to connect the math to real-world problems—or in the case of the Death Star, to problems in fictional worlds.” And now, he has taken on the challenge of conveying the usefulness and beauty of calculus with tall tales, witty asides, and even more bad drawings.

Calculus boils down to two fundamental ideas: the derivative, which is a way of measuring instantaneous change, and the integral, which describes the accumulation of an infinite number of tiny pieces that add up to a whole. “The derivative is all about isolating a single moment in time, and the integral is all about gathering together an infinite stream of moments to develop a holistic picture,” Orlin told Ars.

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