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

25 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0691129495
ISBN-10: 0691129495
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Editorial Reviews


"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

"This book will be enjoyed by anyone with an interest in estimation, but is also targeted at those applying for jobs at companies like Google, where the kind of questions considered in the book are often used in the interview process."--Paul Taylor, Mathematics Today

From the Back Cover

"Guesstimation is a delightful book that, page after page, gleams with insight into the measure of all things--from house pets to lottery tickets and from the kitchen to the cosmos. Meanwhile, the authors cleverly teach you some fundamental chemistry, physics, and biology, leaving you enlightened and curiously comfortable with all that once seemed intractable in the world."--Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist at the American Museum of Natural History, author of Death by Black Hole: And Other Cosmic Quandaries

"Wow, I suddenly grasped concepts that have eluded me for a lifetime. If you work anywhere in the professional world and are aiming for the corner office, this little book could have significant impact on both your analytical abilities and the way you are perceived by others. An absolute eye-opener!"--Martin Yate, New York Times best-selling author of the Knock 'Em Dead job-search and career-management books

"In a world where we are constantly bombarded with quantitative information (and disinformation) and where implausible factoids become established truths by repetition, acquiring a sound grounding in 'numeric literacy' has almost become a civic duty. Weinstein and Adam show to us that it can also be fun! An extremely useful book--not just for the intelligent layperson, but for virtually everyone: politicians, students, policymakers and, yes, sometimes even physicists."--Riccardo Rebonato, Royal Bank of Scotland, author of Plight of the Fortune Tellers

"As well as giving insight into how scientists think, this book packs in more amazing facts than you could shake a stick at. Learn the technique of 'guesstimation' and you will be able to astound your friends at parties, as well as avoid getting ripped off by misleading advertising claims. You may even be able to work out how many facts you can shake a stick at."--John Gribbin, author of Deep Simplicity: Bringing Order to Chaos and Complexity

"A very interesting and informative work, showing both how important and how easy it can be to estimate magnitudes. This book will amuse you while it instructs."--Gino Segrè, author of A Matter of Degrees

"This is definitely my kind of book. The authors show, using numerous examples, how readers can make numerical estimates of quantities--some absurd and some fascinating--in a wide variety of areas. This is a very useful talent--be it in everyday life, in one's career, or in job interviews."--Robert Ehrlich, author of Eight Preposterous Propositions

"This book will benefit teachers and students in science and engineering, from grade school to college. The problems are well chosen to illustrate increasingly complex themes, culminating in energy conservation, risk assessment, and environmental problems. The solutions are careful, complete, and illuminating. General readers with a taste for mathematical puzzles will enjoy it."--Hans Christian von Baeyer, author of The Fermi Solution


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press (April 21, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691129495
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691129495
  • Product Dimensions: 0.8 x 4.2 x 7.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (25 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #127,752 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

87 of 99 people found the following review helpful By Bill Gossett on June 4, 2008
Format: Paperback
This book was entertaining reading...except that most of the more interesting examples described in this book were so familiar. This is one of those books where I might rate it better if it weren't for the fact that there is a far better book for anyone interested in this topic. Like Guesstimation, How to Measure Anything: Finding the Value of "Intangibles" in Business by Douglas Hubbard also discusses the Fermi approach and how ancient Greeks estimated the circumfrance of the Earth (Hubbard's book uses these same examples even though it came out almost a year before Guesstimation...curious). But Hubbard picks up where Guestimation, as another reviewer puts it, "falls short". After a bit of "Fermi decomposition", Hubbard discusses how we can learn to excel at subjectively assessing odds and ranges and how we can compute the value of further measurement. Then he gets into a fascinating array of practical methods of observation to further reduce uncertainty. Although the techniques in Hubbard's book are based on sophisticated mathematical methods, he is able to reach a much broader audience by distilling the math into simple charts, tables and procedures. In short, if you owned both of these books, Guesstimation would be redundant and wouldn't cover nearly as much.
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19 of 22 people found the following review helpful By S. Matthews on June 16, 2009
Format: Paperback
I was somehow expecting to like this book more. And even having said that, I am not sure whether three stars is a little mean, since I did learn real stuff from it, and anything from which you learn real stuff is better than average.

Why do I not like it better? First, the style the authors have decided to adopt, of flippant, cheerful informality ('hey, yay, who would have believed that', 'that is a _really_ big number', 'Gravity sucks!'), that seems to be aimed at frat-boy undergraduate physics nerds - a set of very small cardinality, I would have thought. The effect, at least for me, is the prose equivalent of someone dragging nails down a blackboard. Second, the examples are a bit samey - you do not need to read a lot of them to get the general idea. Third, the examples are very disjointed: question, hints, workout; question, hints, workout, question...

This is all very critical, and I should emphasise that I _did_ learn some useful tips about how to think about certain problems, esp. in the more 'physics-y' questions that come up later; i.e. the more authentically Fermi questions. If you don't mind the prose, you might easily give this a four. Otherwise, you might be better advised to track down Sanjoy Mahajan's work in progress (the name of which escapes me at the moment), which looks like it will be a more serious, and structured, attempt to explore the same sorts of methods.
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12 of 15 people found the following review helpful By wiredweird HALL OF FAMETOP 1000 REVIEWER on November 4, 2008
Format: Paperback
If you can do basic arithmetic with one-digit numbers - add, subtract, multiply, divide - you can be a math genius. Maybe not genius, but you can still blow the doors off most people, and build up a healthy amount of BS-proofing, just by learning how to apply the skills you already have. This book offers dozens of worked examples, using pretty much just the math you learned by sixth grade.

Weinstein and Adam chose a format that's easy to pick up and thumb through. They present each poser on one page, with hints to help you get started. A few extra facts "to hang things on" appear at the back of the book: the sun is about 10^11 meters away, a billion seconds is about 30 years, things like that. Then, the next page or two after the problem works out its answer, often more than one way.

For example: could we create a human chain from Earth to the sun? Well, the sun is about 10^11 meters away, and a person is about 10^0 meters from fingertip to fingertip with arms stretched out. (For back-of-the-envelope purposes, you can often skip the leading digits of numbers.) So, the distance from earth to sun is about 10^11 people-widths, but the Earth's human population is just under 10^10. Answer: We'd certainly come up short.

Some questions, like that one, are silly factoids. Others have more pressing social importance. How much funding does a subsidized school lunch program need per year? How many acres of farmland would it take to fuel your car with ethanol? How much landfill area does your town need for the next decade? When political special interests start throwing numbers around to answer these questions, are they lying to you? Even if you don't have exact numbers to work with, the way you get the answer is what matters, and you know exactly what assumptions you've made.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Zack Green on November 22, 2011
Format: Paperback
Thousands of prices, hundreds of distances, millions of digits, without knowing it we encounter numbers in our daily lives. We use these numbers subconsciously to make simple decisions on purchases, traveling, or even sports. When numbers get larger and the problems become more complex most people become overwhelmed. Guesstimation by Lawrence Weinstein and John Adams attempts to bring order to this chaos. With some basic facts, the authors show the readers how almost every problem can be estimated with some level of accuracy.
Topics are introduced on a very basic level and then slowly increase in complexity. My favorite part of the book is the basic introduction of facts. Small facts can help you infer significantly more difficult facts. For example, most people don't know the circumference of the earth at the Equator. However, broken down into smaller steps you can estimate the distance quite easily. Using the distance of New York to Los Angeles of 3000 miles (which is 3 time zones), you can extrapolate this number to the entire earth (24 time zones) by multiplying by 8. Since 3 times 8 equals 24, we can estimate the circumference of the Earth to be 24,000 miles. The actual circumference of the Earth is 24,859.82 Miles which is quite close to our estimation. Cool little tricks like this make this book absolutely fascinating.
Estimating the total length of all the hair on an average woman's head or how long a running faucet would take to fill the capital building may seem impossible at first glance. However, many high end employers (including consulting firms, software innovators, and investment banks) use similar questions for interviews. This book will give you the tools to solve these problems and train your thought process. For every avid learner or any eager job applicant, this book is a must have.
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