There Are Two Books To Consider If Interested In By Science

December 8, 2022 at 8:46 p.m.


A while back. I wrote about an excellent exercise for the family to tackle and to enjoy is what is known as Fermi’s problem.  

It is a riddle based on estimation and named after the physicist Enrico Fermi (1901-1954). (He was known for his ability to make good approximate calculations with little or no actual data.)  One classic example, and often used, is to guess how many piano tuners there are in Chicago.  

Without looking and calling your cell phone for an answer you could start by guessing the population of that city.  Using 2.5 million to start, and assuming the average household has four people, we would have 625,000 households.  Predict that one out five has a piano; that gets us to about 125,000 pianos. Let’s say that that all get tuned once a year.  Now the question is how many pianos a tune can service annually.  You can guess that one can tune three pianos per day.  Multiply by five times a week, for 50 weeks a year, and that comes out to be about 750 pianos per tuner per year.  Divide the number of pianos (125,000) by 750, and you get roughly 170 tuners in Chicago. The goal isn’t knowing the exact number but rather being able to estimate the right order of magnitude using nothing but common sense.  

According to an article in the New York Times magazine written by Caroline Chen, contemplating Fermi problems keeps one curious about the world and how things relate to one another.  

One way to accomplish that learning process would be to consider reading two delightful and informative  books. Both provide somewhat outlandish questions to demonstrate how to use Fermi’s numbers.  

They are written by Randall Munroe and published by Riverhead.  The latest is entitled “What If? 2.”  It is a sequel to his delightful best selling, “What If” published in 2014.  The earlier book provided detailed answers to quirky scientific and technical questions.  Examples include:  What would happen if the sun suddenly turned off?  How many Lego bricks would it take to build a bridge from New York to London?  Or  what would happen if the Earth and all terrestrial objects suddenly stopped spinning, but the atmosphere retained its velocity?  For the latter, the answer would be that nearly everyone would die.

Then things would get interesting. At the equator, the Earth’s surface is moving at about 470 meters per second — a little over a thousand miles per hour — relative to its axis. If the Earth stopped and the air didn’t, the result would be a sudden thousand-mile-per-hour wind. The wind would be highest at the equator, but everyone and everything living between 42 degrees north and 42 degrees south — which includes about 85% of the world’s population —would suddenly experience supersonic winds. The highest winds would last for only a few minutes near the surface; friction with the ground would slow them down. However, those few minutes would be long enough to reduce virtually all human structures to ruins.

Randall Munroe, the author, has made a career out of sharing his joy in science and engineering.  As noted in a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, Munroe makes that joy contagious, if a little scary at times. The recent book and its predecessor inspire the readers to believe that even in a vast and mysterious universe, there is a lot we can figure out with nothing but a sharp pencil, some basic science knowledge and a vivid imagination.  

Indeed, the books include a random walk through the fields of chemistry, biology, astronomy and engineering — all illustrated with diagrams and twisted humor.  As an example, when answering a question about rolling a snowball down Mount Everest, Munroe explains why the modest tensile strength of compressed snow limits the size a snowball can reach before it collapses.  Instead of one giant snowball, he concludes, your experiment would include thousands of little ones – an avalanche.  

Munroe is a former NASA roboticist who began publishing his comic panels on line. They quickly became popular for scientists, engineers and even teenage nerds.

According to the author, he admits that the topics suggested by adults often involve annoyingly complex scenarios.  He prefers the straight forward and often macabre questions he gets from children that are generally passed along by parents and teachers. An example would be how long would it take to fill a swimming pool with your own saliva?  The answer would be 8,345 years, give or take.

Final Thoughts

I thoroughly enjoyed scanning and reading both of Munroe’s books.  “What if? 2” tackles 64 questions in depth, along with dozens of shorter inquiries;  the prose and illustrations make the book easy to browse as well.

Max Sherman is a medical writer and pharmacist retired from the medical device industry.  His new book “Science Snippets” is available from Amazon and other book sellers. It contains a number of previously published columns.  He can be reached by email at  [email protected]

A while back. I wrote about an excellent exercise for the family to tackle and to enjoy is what is known as Fermi’s problem.  

It is a riddle based on estimation and named after the physicist Enrico Fermi (1901-1954). (He was known for his ability to make good approximate calculations with little or no actual data.)  One classic example, and often used, is to guess how many piano tuners there are in Chicago.  

Without looking and calling your cell phone for an answer you could start by guessing the population of that city.  Using 2.5 million to start, and assuming the average household has four people, we would have 625,000 households.  Predict that one out five has a piano; that gets us to about 125,000 pianos. Let’s say that that all get tuned once a year.  Now the question is how many pianos a tune can service annually.  You can guess that one can tune three pianos per day.  Multiply by five times a week, for 50 weeks a year, and that comes out to be about 750 pianos per tuner per year.  Divide the number of pianos (125,000) by 750, and you get roughly 170 tuners in Chicago. The goal isn’t knowing the exact number but rather being able to estimate the right order of magnitude using nothing but common sense.  

According to an article in the New York Times magazine written by Caroline Chen, contemplating Fermi problems keeps one curious about the world and how things relate to one another.  

One way to accomplish that learning process would be to consider reading two delightful and informative  books. Both provide somewhat outlandish questions to demonstrate how to use Fermi’s numbers.  

They are written by Randall Munroe and published by Riverhead.  The latest is entitled “What If? 2.”  It is a sequel to his delightful best selling, “What If” published in 2014.  The earlier book provided detailed answers to quirky scientific and technical questions.  Examples include:  What would happen if the sun suddenly turned off?  How many Lego bricks would it take to build a bridge from New York to London?  Or  what would happen if the Earth and all terrestrial objects suddenly stopped spinning, but the atmosphere retained its velocity?  For the latter, the answer would be that nearly everyone would die.

Then things would get interesting. At the equator, the Earth’s surface is moving at about 470 meters per second — a little over a thousand miles per hour — relative to its axis. If the Earth stopped and the air didn’t, the result would be a sudden thousand-mile-per-hour wind. The wind would be highest at the equator, but everyone and everything living between 42 degrees north and 42 degrees south — which includes about 85% of the world’s population —would suddenly experience supersonic winds. The highest winds would last for only a few minutes near the surface; friction with the ground would slow them down. However, those few minutes would be long enough to reduce virtually all human structures to ruins.

Randall Munroe, the author, has made a career out of sharing his joy in science and engineering.  As noted in a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, Munroe makes that joy contagious, if a little scary at times. The recent book and its predecessor inspire the readers to believe that even in a vast and mysterious universe, there is a lot we can figure out with nothing but a sharp pencil, some basic science knowledge and a vivid imagination.  

Indeed, the books include a random walk through the fields of chemistry, biology, astronomy and engineering — all illustrated with diagrams and twisted humor.  As an example, when answering a question about rolling a snowball down Mount Everest, Munroe explains why the modest tensile strength of compressed snow limits the size a snowball can reach before it collapses.  Instead of one giant snowball, he concludes, your experiment would include thousands of little ones – an avalanche.  

Munroe is a former NASA roboticist who began publishing his comic panels on line. They quickly became popular for scientists, engineers and even teenage nerds.

According to the author, he admits that the topics suggested by adults often involve annoyingly complex scenarios.  He prefers the straight forward and often macabre questions he gets from children that are generally passed along by parents and teachers. An example would be how long would it take to fill a swimming pool with your own saliva?  The answer would be 8,345 years, give or take.

Final Thoughts

I thoroughly enjoyed scanning and reading both of Munroe’s books.  “What if? 2” tackles 64 questions in depth, along with dozens of shorter inquiries;  the prose and illustrations make the book easy to browse as well.

Max Sherman is a medical writer and pharmacist retired from the medical device industry.  His new book “Science Snippets” is available from Amazon and other book sellers. It contains a number of previously published columns.  He can be reached by email at  [email protected]

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