Monthly Archives: May 2012

Fermi Questions

My brother Alex recently introduced me to the concept of “Fermi questions.” I would define it here, but it’s much easier to steal this site’s definition:

A “Fermi question” is a question in physics which seeks a fast, rough estimate of quantity which is either difficult or impossible to measure directly. For example: The question “How many drops of water are there in Lake Erie?” requires an estimate of the volume of a drop, the volume of Lake Erie from its approximate dimensions and conversion of units to yield an answer.

Another classic problem is, “How many piano tuners are there in Chicago?” (You can’t look at a phone book.) In other words, a Fermi question asks the solver to find some plausible mathematical way to at least guesstimate the answer to an utterly ludicrous question. And, as readers of this blog will know, there are few things I do better than asking utterly ludicrous questions.

So without further ado, here are a few problems for your consideration.

1. How many Olympic swimming pools full of methane are released by the world’s cows every year?
2. How many notes are played on the album A Hard Day’s Night?
3. How many coffee mugs’ worth of gasoline does America spill on its shoes every day?
4. If there was a giant bridge to the moon, how long would it take Forrest Gump to run there?
5. If you were smuggling contraband Post-It notes out of the country in cellos, how many cellos would it take to smuggle five million pads of Post-It notes?
6. How loud, in decibels, would it be if you stood in the middle of a field as cargo planes dropped 500 grand pianos around you?
–6a. How many splinters would you get?
–6b. How much would that stunt cost?
7. How many commas have ever appeared on Yahoo!?
8. If you wanted to turn yourself completely orange from head to toe, how many Cheetos would you need to use?
9. How many hippie bumper stickers are there in Austin, Texas?
10. How many times have you ever sneezed?
11.  If you wanted to build a full-size Lego replica of the Seattle Space Needle, how many Legos would it take?
12. If you wanted to build a Jenga block tower the height of the Seattle Space Needle, and had an indoor space controlling for wind and other atmospheric effects, how many blocks could you pull out before it fell over?
13. If you printed the Internet, how many sheets of paper would it take?
14. If you filled every bathtub in Tokyo, and then covered them all with rubber ducks, how many rubber ducks would that take?
15. How many pints of soy sauce would the world’s hungriest man require for his meal of 50,000,000 pieces of sushi?

Pictured: the world’s hungriest man’s nightstand.

16. I kind of like the idea of the world’s hungriest man. The world’s hungriest man wants to eat 3500 pounds of mashed potatoes. How many kitchen cabinets filled with Yukon Gold potatoes will he need?
17. How many flushing toilets would it take to equal the volume of Niagara Falls?
18. If you made a chain of people from Columbus, Ohio, to Columbus, Georgia, what’s the total number of calories they would eat in a day?
19. Assuming perfectly steady seas, how many individual strokes would it take to row from Miami Beach to Reykjavik?
–19a. If you left Miami on June 1, how long could you stay in Reykjavik before the temperature dropped below 0 Fahrenheit?
20. What’s the total number of years people are sentenced to in your state penitentiary?
21. If the world’s hungriest man bought an M1 Abrams tank and filled it with slices of Gouda, how many official servings of dairy would that be?
22. How many points did Olympic judges give out in 2010?
23. How many times did a tennis ball hit the ground in the 2011 U.S. Open?
24. The world’s hungriest man uses a napkin every time he eats one barbecued pork rib. If he is about to sit down to a feast of three U-haul trucks of pork ribs, how much money will he need to spend on Walmart’s cheapest brand of napkins?
25. If you covered Interstate 90 from end to end in tortillas, how many tacos are you an idiot for not making instead?

So maybe I wrote this when I was kinda hungry myself.


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