2009-06-20

Fermi Problems and Batman

Batman Sherlock FermiBatman is the world's greatest detective. And so it's time that I start to develop detective skills but how to start? Do I start with a criminology text book or try to master forensics or just buy a fingerprint kit?

I'm not sure but I think I need more basic skills than that first. Just logic skills. Like Sherlock Holmes. Holmes once said, "From a drop of water a logician could infer the possibility of an Atlantic or a Niagara without having seen or heard of one or the other." Moving forward from this thought I'm going to take you through a couple of Fermi Problems.

Fermi problems aren't Holmesian deduction but they are a method of "scientific guessing". By making good estimates of things that we already know (things that are common knowledge) we will realize that if we think about it we can have a good estimate about something we thought would be impossible to guess.

It's an estimating technique that will allow us to make good "guesses" very quickly and with very little information about things which would seem impossible to compute by people who have never learned this.

For someone like Batman this kind of skill would be invaluable. I have no doubt that Batman has wired his mind to operate this way.

I practiced this from a book called Guesstimation by Lawrence Weinstein (click on that link) and John Adam. Some of the stuff we'll look at are inspired by a question or two in their book but with a superhero twist. It's a great book by the way. If you have fun with these Fermi problems then I'd highly recommend it. The other place of inspiration will be from a book called The Physics of Superheroes by James Kakalios. Some of these problems will definitely involve physics but it will be the most minor physics. Kakalios uses these types of questions to teach physics but really it's not such hard stuff so I'm going to assume that if you haven't taken a high school physics course that I'll be able to teach it to you as we go.

BUT the pro at this, the man whom the entire method is named after is Enrico Fermi. This man was the prototypical physicist. I don't know what to say about him in a half a paragraph but... wow. He was legendary for being able to figure things out in his head from what other people thought was no information at all. Classic Fermi questions he estimated by this method that we are going to learn include:

How many piano tuners are there in Chicago?
How many blades of grass are there on your front lawn?
What is the ratio of paved to unpaved surface area in California?

Batman Sherlock FermiI'll post a blurb on the how us would-be-Batmans will solve Fermi problems, and then post questions every other day and a solutions the following day. I hope that you guys have as much fun with these as I did (they're all done but scribbled on napkins and notes and stuff but not typed).

PS Once you start to get the hang of these throw out your own comic book based ones and let's see if we can solve them together.

1 comment:

mohitparikh said...

looks liks Fun...looking forward to (solving) them.