Like any mention in the magical world of Harry Potter of Lord Voldemort, whose name others fear to speak, in ours simply uttering ‘calculus’ leaves many people with a rising sense of panic, triggering flashbacks of dreaded maths lessons in their schooldays.
Among the things I was never taught at school was that without calculus we wouldn’t have computers, microwave ovens, radio or television. As Steven Strogatz, an eminent American mathematician who teaches at Cornell University, explains in Infinite Powers, calculus also made possible the splitting of the atom and the unravelling of the human genome. It allowed Katherine Johnson, a NASA mathematician, to plot the trajectory of the Apollo 11 flight, enabling Neil Armstrong to take that one small step on the moon. Although Strogatz’s claim that calculus influenced Thomas Jefferson’s writing of the Declaration of Independence may seem far-fetched, he’s right to point out that every inorganic thing in the universe, from quarks to black holes, bends to its rules.