The Art and Science of Pulling Numbers Out of Your Sleeve

About a year or so ago, I was reading R. V. Jones’ excellent book ‘Most Secret War’. One of the stories I remembered and told my colleagues about, was how Jones estimated the rocket production capabilities of the Germans. He did so after looking at an aerial photograph of a rocket fuel shed. One of my colleague then told me of a course she took at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem that teaches how to make such estimates. I let it go at the time, and just remembered that there is such a course.

A few days ago, I met up with this colleague, and I was reminded of this course. You see, right now I’m collecting data for a project I’m doing with a friend, and I needed estimation know-how. So I asked her the name of the course, and she gave it to me. Two Google search later and I had the English name of the course, “Order of Magnitude in Physics Problems”, and a textbook to look at. I just finished reading the introduction, and I know that I’m going to read the rest of it too. Not just for my current project – but because it’s such a good skill to have.

The book opens with a problem:

We dedicate the first example to physicists who need employment outside of physics. [...] How much money is there in a fully loaded Brinks armored car?

The book then goes to show how to answer such a question intelligently. I’m hooked.

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