# 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.