Steven Strogatz - The Calculus of Friendship: What a Teacher and a Student Learned About Life While Corresponding About Math

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What Mathematics Can and Can't Teach Us about Life

Sep 27, 2010 (Updated Oct 28, 2010)
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Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:The author's forthrightness about himself, the math, Joff's joy in learning

Cons:Could have been a bit longer

The Bottom Line: Absolutely recommended.  An uplifting story with smarts to spare.


I got The Calculus of Friendship for Christmas from my mom.  I'd asked for it after hearing the author, Steve Strogatz, talk about it on the NPR show Radio Lab (also highly recommended, though that's a whole other topic).  As I am a math nerd inside and out, it appealed to me right away, and I'm glad I finally got the chance to get through it.

The Story

Steve Strogatz went to Loomis Chafee, a private prep school in Connecticut, and had Don Joffray as a calculus teacher.  Don is described as a big man, very physically imposing, and joyful about mathematics and the logic it embodies.  Mr. Joffray (Joff, as he's affectionately called) made such an impression on Steve that he began corresponding with him via mail from his freshman year in college onward.

Steve and Joff continued their correspondence on and off for 30 years, through good times and bad in both of their lives.  Steve often refused to let their discussions breach the strict boundaries of the mathematical, though Joff often tried to solicit information about how Steve's life was going in other areas, and held forth on meaningful events in his own life.

Ultimately, near the end of their 30-year correspondence, Steve realizes that he's been holding Joff at arm's length by focusing strictly on math and not letting him in, and it leads him to a lot of insight about himself and about how he wants to live his life.

The Math

There's a lot of math-as-metaphor in this book.  Strogatz appropriates Zeno's Paradox and its conclusions to illustrated differences between himself and Joff.  But the more exciting mathematical content is actual math.  Strogatz reproduces a great number of his and Joff's letters in the book, and if you're mathematically inclined, a lot of them contain quite a few neat little bits of math.  There were bits that I didn't quite follow, but the joy that both men took from mathematics radiates from the page and is really the important part.

Some people might worry that this book might not be their cup of tea if they're not particularly strong in math.  I think that's not really the case.  The mathematical bits can be glossed over if they're over the reader's head, as the important part of the book is the story of the two mens' relationship and how it evolved over the years.

The Final Verdict

This isn't a book that depends on surprise, so the plot details I've revealed above don't ruin anything.  At its heart, this is a book about the author, Strogatz, realizing that he'd had a role model in front of him for 30 years for how a man can delight in logic and reason and math and science, but still laugh and cry and love and care.  He doesn't paint a flattering picture of himself for most of the book, but that's necessary to emphasize his growth by its end.  It's a quick read, and if you're anything like me, it'll lift your spirits, make you smile, and maybe teach you a little bit about infinite series in the process.

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