Unusual Estimation Problems

In much of what follows, letters are used to represent typical dimensions or other quantities. This will enable readers to obtain their own estimates, though they should resist the temptation to just “plug in” their numbers in the formula without following the prior reasoning. Almost certainly we will differ on typical sizes of objects (e.g. grains of sand). But almost as certainly we will choose typical dimensions in the range (for this example) of 0.1 mm - 2 mm, and will probably not, therefore, differ significantly in our subsequent order-of-magnitude answers. Remember that it is to be understood that whenever ratios of dimensional quantities are to be sought, a conversion of units may be necessary in order to compare like quantities. For completeness, actual numerical estimates are given; some of their values may surprise you. Needless to say, the question will be asked: what is the point of knowing how to estimate the number of grains of sand that would fill Buckingham Palace? Apart from a spell in prison for attempting to verify such an estimate, it is a great encouragement to realize that this type of “back of the envelope” calculation can be carried out with a modicum of salient information for a “real-world problem”. Not only might this save a considerable amount of money and computer time on occasion, but also it can greatly enhance the scope of the teaching resources available to teachers of mathematics at the elementary, middle and high school level. There is an excitement that comes from realizing how powerful simple arithmetic can be! And this can be passed on to receptive students. I have observed the “lights go on” when intelligent, educated people recognize the real distinction between 106 seconds (≈ 11½ days) and 109 seconds (≈ 32 years). Sometimes all we need are the right “pegs” to hang numbers (and concepts) on. Let us begin by considering some rather straightforward but eclectic examples, some of which we have encountered before. Amongst the simplest estimation problems are those arising from ratios of lengths, areas and volumes. Thus if D is a typical linear dimension of a given object (e.g. a classroom), and d < D is a typical linear dimension of a smaller object (e.g. a piece of popcorn (popped!)) then N = D3/d3 is the approximate number of smaller objects that would fill the latter. Thus, by using appropriate choices of D and d we may estimate, for example, the number of (1) golf balls required to fill a suitcase; (2) pieces of popcorn to fill a room; (3) soccer balls to fill an average-sized house; (4) cells in a human body, (5) grains of sand to fill the Earth. Related problems involve volumetric measures of fluids, e.g. (6) the volume of human blood in the world; (7) the number of one-gallon buckets required to empty Loch Ness (and hence expose the monster). Others will be found below, and still more in an article by the author (Ref)

Sometimes everyday objects are obviously misrepresented by cubes, but without invalidating the estimation. Thus for a box-like object with linear dimensions a, b and c (in consistent units) N = abc/d3 is more appropriate for the above estimate. For problem (1) above, we might suggest that a = 20, b = 24, c = 8 and d = 1.5, all in inches respectively, so N ≈ 103. For problem (2), suppose a = 10, b = 20, c = 15, (all in feet: a typical small classroom size) and d = 1 cm; then on conversion to cubic cm, N ≈ 3000 X 303 ≈ 108. For problem (3) consider D = 30 ft and d = 1 ft respectively, yielding N ≈ 104. Problem (4) yields ≈ 1014 and the answer to problem (6) is less than 1/200th of a cubic mile; both of these are discussed below. For problem (5), D ≈ 104 km and d = 1 mm yields N ≈ (104 X 103 X 102 X 10)3 = 1030. A cubic Earth, you ask? To this degree of approximation, that is not a problem. Using the fact that 1 cubic foot of liquid (water, soup, blood, etc.) is about 7.5 gallons, we arrive at N ≈ 1012 buckets to empty Loch Ness (this is for problem 7: the Loch has a volume of approximately 2 cubic miles, so 2X (5280)3 X 7.5 ≈ 1012. Now we return to the blood problem (6): Estimate the total volume V of human blood in the world. For a population of 6 X 109 with an average of 1 gallon of blood per person, then V ≈ 6 X 109/7.5 = 8 X 108 cubic ft. This could be contained in a cube of side length (8 X 108 )1/3 ≈ 930 feet. Putting things a little more picturesquely, Central Park has an area of about 1.3 square miles, so all this blood would cover the park to a depth of approximately 8 X 108 /[1.3 X (52802) ≈ 22 feet. Most interesting. (8) How much dental floss does a convict really need? Several years ago a local newspaper article featured the story of an inmate at a correctional center in West Virginia who escaped from the prison grounds by using a rope made from dental floss to pull himself over the courtyard wall. The rope was estimated to be the thickness of a telephone cord, and the wall was 18 ft high. Let’s simplify things for your students (who won’t have encountered π yet, I assume) by considering square cross sections for the cord and tape, as opposed to circular ones. Yes, yes, I know that dental tape is not even circular in cross-sectional shape, let alone square, but work with me here! Taking 4 mm for the “diameter” (or side of the square cross section) of the telephone cord, and ½ mm for the floss “diameter”, then the number of floss fibers in a cord cross section is (4/0.5)2 ≈ 60, and if each packet contains the standard length of 55 yards, the number of packets required is N ≈ (20 X 60) / (55 X 3) ≈ 7. I don't know how many he actually used (the article didn’t say), nor if his teeth were subsequently in good condition. (9) Estimate how fast human hair grows (on average) in mph. If the hair is cut once every n months (usually n < 2, for me anyway) and the average amount cut off is x inches, then x/n inches per month ≈ (x/n) / [(5280 X 12) X (30 X 24)] mph ≈ 10-8 (x/n) mph. If n = 1 and x = 1, then the rate of hair growth is approximately 10-8 mph.

(10) Population square: If each person on earth were given enough space to stand comfortably on the ground without touching anyone else, estimate the length L of the side of a square that would contain everybody in this fashion. If we give everyone, say, a square ½ meter on a side then the side of the large square is L ≈ √(6 X 109 ) X ½ X 10-3 km ≈ 40 km. (11, 12) Human Surface Area and Volume. To estimate these quantities crudely but quickly, without the use of π (as would be used for a cylinder, for example), consider a human to be in the shape of a rectangular box (or parallelepiped!). This would make buying clothes much easier for me. Obviously we may wish to encourage the students to estimate their own surface area and volume in this way, but for a typical adult, recalling the “a,b,c” approach of an earlier problem, let’s take a = 6 ft, b = 1 ft and c = 1 ft, from which the volume V = aXbXc ≈ 6 cubic ft. Since 1 ft ≈ 0.3 m, it follows that V ≈ 6X(0.3)3 ≈ 0.16 cubic meters. This is probably an overestimate, for obvious reasons (our legs are not stuck together!). In fact, Robert Ehrlich notes that since most individuals float in water, the average density of a human is about the same as that of water, or 1 gm/cc, so a kilogram of you or me occupies about 1000 cc, or one liter. A person weighing 170 pounds (77 kg) thus has a volume of about 77 liters or roughly 0.08 cubic meters. So a conservative estimate is that a typical adult has a volume of about 0.1 cubic meters, give or take, as they say. From this we can estimate the answer to Ehrlich's question: how long a hot dog would you make? The answer may surprise you. He further points out, aided and abetted by a cartoon from Gary Ehrlich that there is one profession that regularly approximates people by rectangular boxes... Now we are in a position to return to problem 4: Estimate the number of cells in a human body (N). If we assume an average cell diameters of 10 microns or 10-5 m, then since, as noted above, 1 ft ≈ 0.3 m, using the estimate of V from problem (12) above, we find that N ≈ 10-1/(10-5)3 =1014 cells. Remember that even though we know cells are not tiny cubes, we are probably not too far off correct value by assuming this. 13. The average rate of growth of a child from birth to 18 yrs. Over this time span (if hn denotes height at age n, the average “speed” of growth is approximately equal to (h18 – h0)/18 ≈ 1/18 m/yr ≈ 10-3/(20X400X20) ≈ 10-8 km/hr, that is, about the same order of magnitude as the speed of hair growth! Perhaps we could label children as super- or sub-follicular depending on whether or not they grow faster than their hair! 14. Thickness of an oil layer. Perhaps no one likes to take his medicine. Anyway, as rumor has it, Benjamin Franklin noted that 0.1 cm3 of oil dropped on a lake spread to a maximum area of 40 m2. If d is the thickness of the layer in meters, then 40d = 10-1X10-6 = 10-7, so d =25X10-10 m, or 25 Angstroms. Interestingly this corresponds to a “monomolecular layer” of 10 to12 atoms (with atom-space-atom-... for a molecule), which is about right for a molecule of “light” oil.

15. The number of leaves (N) on a tree. A very simplistic argument follows. If r is the typical radius for a tree's leaf “canopy”, the ‘surface area’ of a spherical canopy is 4πr2, and if d is a typical leaf size (in the same units as r), an estimate for the number of leaves is 4πr2/d2. Clearly, leaves do not continuously cover the “surface” of the canopy; this does compensate, however, for the fact that there are generally many leaves on branches interior to the canopy (although this will depend on the type of tree). For a small tree (for example a 15-20-year-old yew) the leaf canopy may have a radius r ≈ 4 ft, and d ≈ 1 inch so N ≈ 4X3X502 = 30,000 - that is, an order of magnitude in the range 104 to 105 in general, if we include larger trees as well. Alternatively we could consider a cubical tree canopy of side r and perform the estimate for ‘surface area’ 6r2; the result will differ from the former by about a factor of two.

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