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Guesstimation: Solving the World's Problems on the Back of a Cocktail Napkin

Popular Science

By: Lawrence Weinstein and John A Adam

320 pages, 72 line illus

Princeton University Press

Paperback | May 2008 | #174204 | ISBN-13: 9780691129495
Availability: Usually dispatched within 5 days Details
NHBS Price: £13.95 $17/€16 approx

About this book

Guesstimation is a book that unlocks the power of approximation - it's popular mathematics rounded to the nearest power of ten! The ability to estimate is an important skill in daily life. More and more leading businesses today use estimation questions in interviews to test applicants' abilities to think on their feet.

"Guesstimation" enables anyone with basic math and science skills to estimate virtually anything - quickly - using plausible assumptions and elementary arithmetic. Lawrence Weinstein and John Adam present an eclectic array of estimation problems that range from devilishly simple to quite sophisticated and from serious real-world concerns to downright silly ones.

How long would it take a running faucet to fill the inverted dome of the Capitol? What is the total length of all the pickles consumed in the U.S. in one year? What are the relative merits of internal-combustion and electric cars, of coal and nuclear energy? The problems are marvelously diverse, yet the skills to solve them are the same. The authors show how easy it is to derive useful ballpark estimates by breaking complex problems into simpler, more manageable ones - and how there can be many paths to the right answer.

The book is written in a question-and-answer format with lots of hints along the way. It includes a handy appendix summarizing the few formulas and basic science concepts needed, and its small size and French-fold design make it conveniently portable.

Dr. Adam and his colleague Lawrence Weinstein, a professor of physics, offer a wide and often amusing assortment of Fermi flexes in a book that just caught my eye, Guesstimation: Solving the World's Problems on the Back of a Cocktail Napkin. -- Natalie Angier, New York Times An important skill of great use ... is the ability to derive an approximate result from insufficient data. Guesstimation is a collection of [problems] gathered from everyday life and various fields. Working out questions ... is both entertaining and enlightening. It may also help foster your career ... because making correct guesses quickly establishes your reputation as an expert. -- Stephan Mertens, Science This book is a stimulating collection that will help the reader to reach informed judgments and will be a useful source of inspiration for mathematics and physics teachers: my only concern is that if my students have read it before they arrive at university, I may have to find a new approach to my first day's teaching. -- Tony Mann, Times Higher Education While few can hope to emulate the brilliance of a Nobel Prize winner like [Enrico] Fermi, coming up with pretty good guesstimates is a skill that can be taught. And that's the aim of Guesstimation. After a quick tutorial, the authors get down to business with a host of wide-ranging worked examples, from estimating the numbers of piano tuners in Los Angeles to figuring out the impact of deforestation on greenhouse gas levels. The results are sometimes surprising. -- Robert Matthews, BBC Focus Magazine [Guesstimation is] a left-brain book that helps you approximate answers to the types of questions actually asked in some job interviews today. -- Peter Coy, BusinessWeek [A] delightful account of mathematical approximation, which instills the beauty and power of the back-of-the-envelope calculation. The puzzles make addictive confidence builders by breaking down tricky questions into manageable parts. Never again will you take a newspaper figure at face value without feeling the need, and confidence, to guesstimate your own figure. -- Matthew Killeya, New Scientist Guesstimation is both enlightening and entertaining. I recommend it to my fellow journalists both as a tool of our trade and as a mind stretcher. -- Rony V. Diaz, Manila Times Any idea what fraction of land in the US is covered by either a roof or pavement? Known as a Fermi problem, this type of question requires the use of reasonable estimation, which is the focus of the book at hand. In the initial chapters, Weinstein and Adam briefly review good 'guesstimation' techniques involving numbers and explain why the use of the geometric mean is preferred over the arithmetic mean. -- J. Johnson, Choice How many people in the world are picking their nose right now? Weinstein and Adam 'guesstimate' the answer to this problem and 79 others, covering chemistry, physics, biology and history. The book is a step-by-step guide to problem-solving using rough-and-ready maths, the kind done on the back of a cocktail napkin. And the authors have kindly left additional questions at the end to get readers started on their own problem-solving expedition. -- Cosmos Physics educators can use this book as a guide to including the important skill of estimation in their courses. Students may find the power of estimation to be a valuable skill and will want to work their way through this book. -- Arthur Eisenkrafr, American Journal of Physics A source of imaginative problems, this book would make a nice addition to a mathematics department library. -- Diane Resek, Mathematics Teacher [I]t's quite obvious that the authors intend their book to be fun, nonthreatening, and user-friendly. There's very little not to like... [T]he book can be for everybody, 'higher-up professionals' who might know math but not physics, as well as students wrestling with 'word problems.' Teachers could very well recommend it to math majors and nonmajors alike, or even use it in the classroom, in some cases as supplementary reading for the course. -- Marion Deutsche Cohen, Mathematical Intelligencer The cumulative effect of fairly simple paths to estimating solutions to a dizzying array of difficult problems is fascinating. -- Ray Bert, Civil Engineering


Acknowledgments xi Preface xiii Chapter 1: How to Solve Problems 1 Chapter 2: Dealing with Large Numbers 11 2.1 Scientific Notation 11 2.2 Accuracy 14 2.3 A Note on Units 16 2.4 Unit Conversion 17 Chapter 3: General Questions 19 3.1 One big family 21 3.2 Fore! 25 3.3 This is a fine pickle you've got us into, Patty 29 3.4 Throwing in the towel 31 3.5 Hey buddy, can you fill a dome? 35 3.6 A mole of cats 39 3.7 Massive MongaMillions 41 3.8 Tons of trash 43 3.9 Mt. Trashmore 47 3.10 Juggling people 51 3.11 Shelving the problem 53 Chapter 4: Animals and People 55 4.1 More numerous than the stars in the sky 57 4.2 Laboring in vein 61 4.3 Unzipping your skin 65 4.4 Hair today, gone tomorrow 69 4.5 Hot dawg! 73 4.6 Playing the field 75 4.7 Ewww... gross! 77 4.8 Going potty 79 4.9 Let's get one thing straight! 83 Chapter 5: Transportation 87 5.1 Driving past Saturn 89 5.2 Drowning in gasoline 91 5.3 Slowly on the highway 95 5.4 Rickshaws and automobiles 99 5.5 Horse exhaust 103 5.6 Tire tracks 107 5.7 Working for the car 109 Chapter 6: Energy and Work 113 6.1 Energy of height 114 6.1.1 Mountain climbing 115 6.1.2 Flattening the Alps 119 6.1.3 Raising a building 123 6.2 Energy of motion 126 6.2.1 At your service 127 6.2.2 Kinetic trucking 129 6.2.3 Racing continents 131 6.2.4 "To boldly go... " 135 6.3 Work 138 6.3.1 Crash! 139 6.3.2 Spider-Man and the subway car 143 Chapter 7: Hydrocarbons and Carbohydrates 145 7.1 Chemical energy 145 7.1.1 Energy in gasoline 147 7.1.2 Battery energy 151 7.1.3 Battery energy density 155 7.1.4 Batteries vs. gas tanks 159 7.2 Food is energy 162 7.2.1 Eat here, get gas 163 7.2.2 Farmland for ethanol 167 7.3 Power! 170 7.3.1 Hot humans 171 7.3.2 Fill 'er up with gasoline 173 7.3.3 Fill 'er up with electricity 175 Chapter 8: The Earth, the Moon, and Lots of Gerbils 179 8.1 "And yet it moves" (e pur si muove) 181 8.2 Duck! 185 8.3 Super-sized Sun 189 8.4 Sun power 193 8.5 Gerbils 1, Sun 0 197 8.6 Chemical Sun 201 8.7 Nearby supernova 205 8.8 Melting ice caps 209 Chapter 9: Energy and the Environment 213 9.1 Power to the people 215 9.2 Continental power 219 9.3 Solar energy 223 9.4 Land for solar energy 225 9.5 Tilting at windmills 229 9.6 The power of coal 233 9.7 The power of nuclei 237 9.8 Hard surfaces 239 Chapter 10: The Atmosphere 243 10.1 Into thin air 245 10.2 Ancient air 247 10.3 Suck it up 251 10.4 CO2 from coal 255 10.5 A healthy glow 259 10.6 CO2 from cars 261 10.7 Turning gas into trees 265 10.8 Turning trees into gas 269 Chapter 11: Risk 273 11.1 Gambling on the road 275 11.2 The plane truth 277 11.3 Life's a beach 279 11.4 Up in smoke 281 Chapter 12: Unanswered Questions 285 Appendix: Needed Numbers and Formulas 289 A.1 Useful Numbers 289 A.2 Handy Formulas 289 A.3 Metric Prefixes 290 B Pegs to Hang Things On 291 Bibliography 295 Index 299

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Lawrence Weinstein is professor of physics at Old Dominion University. John A. Adam is professor of mathematics at Old Dominion University. He is the author of "Mathematics in Nature: Modeling Patterns in the Natural World" (Princeton) and the coeditor of "A Survey of Models for Tumor-Immune System Dynamics".

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