Estimates and order of magnitudes



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We have stressed the importance of knowing the accuracy of numbers that represent physical quantities. But even a very crude estimate of a quantity often gives us useful information. Sometimes we know how to calculate a certain quantity, but we have to guess at the data we need for the calculation. Or the calculation might be too complicated to carry out exactly, so we make rough approximations.

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   In either case our result is also a guess, but such a guess can be useful even if it is uncertain by a factor of two, ten, or more. Such calculations are called order-of-magnitude estimates. The great Italian-American nuclear physicist Enrico Fermi (1901–1954) called them “back-of-the-envelope calculations.” Exercises 1.17 through 1.23 at the end of this chapter are of the estimating, or order-of magnitude, variety. Most require guesswork for the needed input data. Don’t try to look up a lot of data; make the best guesses you can. Even when they are off by a factor of ten, the results can be useful and interesting.

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