Do you have math phobia?

Jennifer Ouellette did. But not anymore. Her new book The Calculus Diaries: How Math Can Help You Lose Weight, Win in Vegas, and Survive a Zombie Apocalypse, in stores today, follows her journey to undo the damage of high school math class. Part of a trend of "take back the parabola" books, female science writers and mathematicians (Danica McKellar, Cordelia Fine) are re-educating women to help them overcome their algebraic baggage. Ouellette's book offers a first-person journey to math nirvana, from outsider to whiz. Not only did she discover a knack for formulas as an adult, she applied her skills to daily life. From shopping to JuJitsu, there's power in numbers, says Ouellette. Nobel prize judges: take note.

Where did your math phobia stem from?
I wrestled with this question while writing the book. Several people I spoke with experienced a moment of failure and a sense of humiliation in their math classes, which shattered their confidence and made them reluctant to try anything math-related ever again because they clearly just weren't "good at math." In my case, I was a perfectionist, and did well in class, but knew I didn't really understand the "why" of what I was doing. I experienced a great deal of anxiety about having my ignorance revealed. I was afraid of public humiliation and ruining my grade average, thereby disappointing my parents. It was a form of "Impostor Syndrome," I guess. And over time, that anxiety attached itself to all things mathematical and became a lifelong phobia.
So what was your breakthrough moment?
I asked a physicist about why it is that objects fall at the same rate regardless of mass. I had no doubt it was true, but it seemed counter-intuitive. He said I didn't have to take the matter on faith, he could walk me through the equation and it would be obvious to me why this was so. The little "m" for mass cancels out nicely -- an object's mass really is irrelevant to the acceleration. It was a nice example of math in the real world, but it was the "not taking things on faith" comment that stuck with me. I like knowing the "why" of things; it helps me make sense of the world and my place in it.
You lost me at the word "mass". How did that experience change your thinking?
Perfectionists really hate to fail, and sometimes that means we avoid taking risks, or trying to learn new things, for fear of looking of feeling stupid. One of the best decisions I ever made was to earn a black belt in jujitsu at a tiny storefront DoJo in Brooklyn. I trained mostly with men who were bigger and stronger than me, and you just don't learn martial arts without getting knocked around a little and making a lot of mistakes. In fact, those tiny failures are crucial to the learning process. I realized this was true of all things in life: you have to embrace the possibility of failing in order to take meaningful risks in life. That's something that's missing from our educational system: we focus so much on getting the "right" answer to earn top grades. I'm not saying those things aren't important, but more often than not, students miss the process of learning and acquiring knowledge.

Is this particularly true with women and girls?
Math really isn't gender specific in its usefulness, but I think women receive far more "negative messaging" about math and their own numerical and reasoning abilities than men. Most of us have heard the "women are irrational" and "girls just aren't as good as boys at math" myths at some point, and inevitably this colors our perceptions of ourselves, which in turn affects the decisions we make. Combine negative messaging with a bad experience in high school math class, and you've got a recipe for a lifetime of avoiding the topic altogether. And that's not a good thing for women: it undermines our self-confidence in subtle ways that can keep us from achieving our goals -- almost a form of self-sabotage.

So what are math-phobes missing out on?
We need math skills to succeed in life: not just basic accounting, inventory, and budget management -- critical skills for running a household and/or your own business -- but also statistics, probability, compound interest. That's to say accumulating interest in a bank account and reducing interest gradually over time on a mortgage payment.

Sold. But what about the basics--can math put a stop to regrettable impulse shopping?
Any time we comparison shop, we're actually doing a conceptual form of calculus. I discovered this when we were shopping for a home last year. Think about the process: you identify the factors that are most important to you (square footage, price, location, etc.), prioritize them, and then try to find the optimal combination of all of those among the vast assortment of available houses to find your dream home. In math-speak, it's known as a "multi-variable optimization problem," which is an impressive phrase to trot out at cocktail parties. It's really just a quantified version of comparison shopping. You assign a numerical value to each "variable" (or factor that's important to you like "it's a good office dress"), and take a derivative of each of those separately to get your answer. On a graph, the optimal choice would be wherever the curve flattens out. The more variables you have, the harder the problem becomes. That might explain why we always make certain trade-offs for large purchases, like a home.

How about dating? Can math make that easier, please?
Actually yes! One of my favorite articles from Inkling, an online magazine, a few years ago was called "The Calculus of Saying 'I Love You,'" in which a young woman is dating an engineer who will only profess his love when his feelings for her reach the limit or stop growing. It's a charming and very funny discussion of why said engineer's assumption was not the optimal solution to the conundrum. Calculus can help you figure out the optimal time to say "I love you," which turns out to be when the growth in the "love function" has stopped accelerating, but not stopped growing altogether. No woman wants a man to never love her any more than on the day he first said "I love you".