Today I gave a lecture on what I call number sense, using a process of estimation and approximation in order to calculate various unknown quantities, including a few fantastical ones. How much coffee is made per day in New York City? Would it fill up the Statue of Liberty? Approximately how many babies are born in New York City each day? If you made a stack of quarters to reach the distance to the moon, what would the dollar-value be? If you piled those quarters in a heap, would it fit in Central Park? How much does the Empire State Building weigh?

These kinds of back-of-the-envelope calculations, in my view, have at their heart the idea that one can solve a difficult or seemingly impossible problem by breaking it into more manageable pieces. We don’t just pull a final answer out of the air, but rather make simplifying assumptions and informed estimates for related quantities that we are more familiar with or have knowledge about, and then use that information to derive a better estimate for the main quantity. For most of these questions, at the outset we may have little idea what would be a reasonable answer, but by the end, we gain some insight and find ourselves a little closer to the truth.

These kind of calculations are also known as Fermi estimations, in light of Fermi’s remarkable ability to make surprisingly accurate estimations on the basis of little or no hard data. The wikipedia page (thanks to Artie Prendergrast-Smith for mentioning this link in the comments) emphasizes that even in a case where the estimate is significantly off the true value, nevertheless we may still find value in the Fermi calculation, because it focusses our attention to the reasons for the divergence. In discovering which of the assumptions underlying our calculations was wrong, we come to a deeper understanding of the true situation.

In the lecture, I began with some very easy cases. For example, how many seats were in the auditorium? The students estimated that there were approximately 12 seats per row and about 10 rows, so 120 seats in all. How old was one of the students, in seconds? Well, he was 18 years old, and so we could simply multiply each year by 365 days, times 24 hours per day, times 60 minutes per hour, times 60 seconds per minute, to get

$$18\times 365\times 24\times 60\times 60\approx 600,000,000 \text{ seconds}.$$

One student objected about leap days, since 365 should be 365.25 or so. But I pointed out that this difference was not as important as it might seem, since already we had made far larger rounding assumptions. For example, the student was not exactly 18 years old, but 18 years old and some several months; by using 18 years only, we made a bigger difference in the answer than caused by the leap-day issue, which would be a difference of only five days or so over 18 years. For the same reason, we should feel free to round the numbers to make the calculation easier. We are aiming at a ballpark estimate rather than an exact answer.

Let’s now do some more interesting cases.

**Coffee in New York.** How much coffee is made each day in New York? Would it fill the Statue of Liberty? First, let me say that I really don’t have any definite information about how much coffee is made each day in New York, and I fear that my own coffee-obsessed perspective will lead me to over-estimate the amount, but let’s give it a try. New York City has a population of approximately 10 million people. Some of those people, like myself, drink a large amount of coffee each day, but many of the others do not drink coffee at all. I would think that a sizable percentage of the NYC population does drink coffee, perhaps as much as a third or even half consumes coffee daily. Many of those coffee-drinkers have more than one cup per day, and also surely more coffee is made than consumed. So it seems reasonable to me to estimate that we have approximately one medium cup of coffee per person on average per day in New York. Basically, we’re saying that the heavy coffee drinkers and the made-but-not-sold coffee approximately makes up for those who abstain, making the average about one cup per person. So we are talking about 10 million cups of coffee per day. A medium cup of brewed coffee at Starbucks is I think about 12-16 ounces, a little less than a pint, and so let’s say about 3 cups per liter. This amounts to roughly 3 million liters of coffee.

Would it fill the Statue of Liberty? The statue itself is, I estimate, about twenty stories tall, counting the base, and if each story is 15 ft, or 5 meters, that would mean 100 meters tall, counting the base. But I think that the base is about half the height, so let’s say 50 meters for the actual statue itself. I’ve never been inside the statue, but my students say that it is about 10 meters across inside, a little more at the bottom than near the top. If we approximated it as a rectangular solid, that would give a volume of $10\times 10\times 50$ cubic meters, or 5000 cubic meters. But since the statue tapers as you go up, particularly in the arm holding the torch, it really is more like a cone than a rectangular solid, and so we should divide by three. But let’s divide just by two, because she isn’t quite as tapered as a cone. So the Statue of Liberty has a volume of approximately 2500 cubic meters. One cubic meter can be thought of as a 10 by 10 by 10 array of little 10cm cubes, and each of those is exactly one liter. So a cubic meter is 1000 liters, and therefore the Statue of Liberty has a volume of $2500\times 1000=2.5$ million liters. But since we had 3 million liters of coffee, the answer our calculation arrives at is: **Yes, one day’s worth of New York coffee would fill up the Statue of Liberty!**

Well, we do not have perfect confidence in our estimates and assumptions — for example, perhaps there are many fewer coffee drinkers in New York than we estimated or perhaps we underestimated the volume of the Statue of Liberty. Since the estimated volumes were of basically similar magnitudes, we aren’t really entitled to say that definitely the coffee would fill up the Statue of Liberty. Rather, what we have come to know is that those two volumes are comparably similar in size; they are in the same ballpark.

**Elevator trips.** While riding downtown last weekend with my son on the subway, a crowded 4 train, we overheard the group standing next to us talking about elevators. One lady said, “My elevator company serves as many elevator trips in New York City in five days as the population of the entire world,” and the rest of her group, impressed, nodded affirmatively in reply. But my thoughts, upon hearing that, were to make a quick calculation. Suppose all 10 million NYC residents rode an elevator 10 times every day, which is way too high (probably one trip per person per day is more reasonable, since many people live and work in buildings without elevators). Even in this extreme case of ten trips per person per day, it would mean only 100 million trips total per day, or 500 million trips over 5 days. This is much less than the world population, and so no way is that person’s claim true, especially since there are also many elevator companies. I thought of mentioning my calculation to those people on the subway, but decided against it. Walking out of the subway in the East Village, however, I asked my son (14 years old) whether he heard those people talking about elevators, and he replied, “Oh, yes, and when they said that, I calculated it in my head: no way is that true.” He then proceeded to explain his calculation, similar to mine. Yay, Horatio!

**The Chicago marathon.** In the run-up to the Chicago marathon this year, on a route that would wind through the windy city streets, Newsweek magazine reported, “Chicago Marathon organizers expect 1.7 million fans to line the route this year.” (Thanks to the critical math commentary of Mark Iris for bringing this example to my attention.) The organizers had emphasized the economic impact of these spectators, many of whom would presumably be eating in Chicago restaurants and staying at Chicago hotels. But is this a reasonable number?

Let’s calculate. A marathon is approximately 26 miles, and the route has two sides for spectators, so let’s round it to 50 miles of spectator viewing spots. Each mile is about 1800 yards, so we have $50\times 1800=90000$ yards of viewing spots. Each spectator, standing shoulder-to-shoulder, with all their stuff, takes up about a yard of space. So if the marathon was lined on both sides for the entire route with spectators standing shoulder-to-shoulder, this would amount to about 90,000 spectators. In order to have 1.7 million spectators, therefore, they would have to be lined up behind each other. But even if the spectators were 10 people deep on each side for the entire route, which is a vast crowd, it would still amount only to 900,000 people. We would have basically to double this to get to 1.7 million. So, if the live event really had 1.7 million spectators lining the route, then it would mean that the race was lined 20 people deep on each side for the entire route. No way is this number correct! I have never had the chance to attend the Chicago marathon, but at the New York marathon, which I assume is comparable, I know that while there are thick crowds at the finish line in Central Park and at some of the other prominent or especially interesting race locations, most of the rest of the route is much thinner, and at the typical nothi