About Me

Ithaca, New York
MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

#76 - The Calculus of Friendship

The Calculus of Friendship: What a Teacher and a Student Learned about Life While Corresponding About Math, by Steven H. Strogatz (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009).

Summary: "The Calculus of Friendship is the story of an extraordinary connection between a teacher and a student, as chronicled through more than thirty years of letters between them. What makes their relationship unique is that it is based almost entirely on a shared love of calculus. For them, calculus is more than a branch of mathematics; it is a game they love playing together, a constant when all else is in flux. The teacher goes from the prime of his career to retirement, competes in whitewater kayaking at the international level, and loses a son. The student matures from high school math whiz to Ivy League professor, suffers the sudden death of a parent, and blunders into a marriage destined to fail. Yet through it all they take refuge in the haven of calculus -- until a day comes when calculus is no longer enough.

"Like calculus itself, The Calculus of Friendship is an exploration of change. It's about the transformation that takes place in a student's heart, as he and his teacher reverse roles, as they age, as they are buffeted by life itself. Written by a renowned teacher and communicator of mathematics, The Calculus of Friendship is warm, intimate, and deeply moving. The most inspiring ideas of calculus, differential equations, and chaos theory are explained through metaphors, images, and anecdotes in a way that all readers will find beautiful, and even poignant. Math enthusiasts, from high school students to professionals, will delight in the offbeat problems and lucid explanations in the letters. For anyone whose life has been changed by a mentor, The Calculus of Friendship will be an unforgettable journey."

Opening Lines: "Calculus thrives on continuity. At its core is the assumption that things change smoothly, that everything is only infintesimally different from what it was a moment before."

My Take: Coming to this as someone who never got calculus in high school but wishes I was in a position to tackle it anew today -- and someone who's always a sucker for a heartwarming, mentor-mentee story. Let's see ...

(Later, after finishing the book) Sigh. Guess this wasn't the book for me, or I wasn't the reader for it. If you either know calculus or are willing to spend a lot of time teaching yourself to follow the detailed, multi-page problems that form the bulk of Strogatz and Joffrey's correspondence, have at it. Sadly, I don't fall into either camp, and when you strip away the mathematical equations, there just wasn't much left. Oh well.

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