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The Rewards of Calculus


The Weekend Journal section of yesterday’s Wall Street Journal had an architecture feature on a house that Glenn Lowry, the director of the Museum of Modern Art, is quoted as calling “one of the most important private houses built in North America in a long time.” The story opens with a bang: “In 1999, a slight, unassuming man approached architects Brigitte Shim and Howard Sutcliffe with a whopping proposition: Build a house with curves, glass and a concert hall. No deadlines, no design restraints. The final cost: $24 million, nearly every penny the man had saved over 60-odd years.” So who is this unassuming man? His identity is revealed in the fifth paragraph.

The home’s owner is equally eccentric. Jim Stewart, who will only say he is in his 60s, is a top-shelf classical violinist who earned his millions writing calculus textbooks. The math professor named the building “Integral House”, after the calculus sign. Soft spoken — he stumbles frequently when asked questions about his success — Mr. Stewart also loves to throw spectacular parties like his annual Halloween costume ball (last year he donned a red dress to appear as the courtesan Satine from the movie “Moulin Rouge!”).

Wow! You can make tens of millions of dollars from a calculus text! I knew it was big business, but not that big. Stewart’s book lists at Amazon right now for $207.95, with a 20% discount offered, bringing the price down to $166.36, so I shouldn’t have been surprised. It’s now the dominant calculus text in the country. Let’s say 200,000 freshmen and sophomores buy it each year. Royalty income would then be several million dollars annually. Our department went through a multi-year process of reviewing and revising our calculus curriculum a decade ago, culminating in the selection of Stewart’s book as our text. That’s good for a few thousand sales per year.

What about the used-book market? Doesn’t that cut into sales? Well, yes, but that’s what makes the whole textbook business so sordid. Publishers have authors revise successful texts for core freshman/sophomore courses every three years or so, whether the texts need revision or not, in order to undercut the sale of used books. Universities are forced to switch to the new text to ensure adequate supply for the students, and then the old texts no longer work, because the exercises have changed. Ostensibly the new exercises are one of the areas of major improvement in a text, taking into account new results and new areas of application. The thing about calculus, though, is that it hasn’t changed a whole lot in centuries. Newton and Leibniz got a pretty good start in the 1600s, and by the 1800s the subject as we now teach it was pretty well established. A great deal of new, beautiful, and important mathematics is published every year, but not in calculus. Certain areas of science change so rapidly that revised texts may be essential — though probably not every 3-4 years. Calculus doesn’t change rapidly though. That’s the thing about math. Our truths are permanent. We don’t come up with new theories that make the old ones obsolete. Like plate tectonics in geology. Not going to happen. Calculus is calculus.

Nonetheless, the dominant texts keep getting revised. One of the most stunning lines in the WSJ article, to me, was one near the end stating that Stewart “estimates he worked 355 days last year.” If this work was on the latest edition of Calculus, I must wonder why all that work was really necessary.

Enough of that. Let’s admire the fruits of Stewart’s labor. Do read the article, and check out the accompanying slideshow, with eight shots of the house.

Perhaps I should add that I haven’t actually used Stewart’s book, so I have no opinion myself on it. I gather it’s an excellent text. But, after teaching calculus off and on for 20 years, I haven’t taught it for the last 13.

Categories: Architecture, Math, Music
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