On many occasions, physicists, other scientists, and engineers need to make approximations or “guesstimates” for a particular quantity. What is the distance to a certain destination? What is the approximate density of a given item? About how large a current will there be in a circuit? Many approximate numbers are based on formulae in which the input quantities are known only to a limited accuracy. As you develop problem-solving skills (that can be applied to a variety of fields through a study of physics), you will also develop skills at approximating. You will develop these skills through thinking more quantitatively, and by being willing to take risks. As with any endeavor, experience helps, as well as familiarity with units. These approximations allow us to rule out certain scenarios or unrealistic numbers. Approximations also allow us to challenge others and guide us in our approaches to our scientific world. Let us do two examples to illustrate this concept.

Can you approximate the height of one of the buildings on your campus, or in your neighborhood? Let us make an approximation based upon the height of a person. In this example, we will calculate the height of a 39-story building.

**Strategy**

Think about the average height of an adult male. We can approximate the height of the building by scaling up from the height of a person.

**Solution**

Based on information in the example, we know there are 39 stories in the building. If we use the fact that the height of one story is approximately equal to about the length of two adult humans (each human is about 2-m tall), then we can estimate the total height of the building to be

**Discussion**

You can use known quantities to determine an approximate measurement of unknown quantities. If your hand measures 10 cm across, how many hand lengths equal the width of your desk? What other measurements can you approximate besides length?

The U.S. federal deficit in the 2008 fiscal year was a little greater than $10 trillion. Most of us do not have any concept of how much even one trillion actually is. Suppose that you were given a trillion dollars in $100 bills. If you made 100-bill stacks and used them to evenly cover a football field (between the end zones), make an approximation of how high the money pile would become. (We will use feet/inches rather than meters here because football fields are measured in yards.) One of your friends says 3 in., while another says 10 ft. What do you think?

**Strategy**

When you imagine the situation, you probably envision thousands of small stacks of 100 wrapped $100 bills, such as you might see in movies or at a bank. Since this is an easy-to-approximate quantity, let us start there. We can find the volume of a stack of 100 bills, find out how many stacks make up one trillion dollars, and then set this volume equal to the area of the football field multiplied by the unknown height.

**Solution**

(1) Calculate the volume of a stack of 100 bills. The dimensions of a single bill are approximately 3 in. by 6 in. A stack of 100 of these is about 0.5 in. thick. So the total volume of a stack of 100 bills is:

(2) Calculate the number of stacks. Note that a trillion dollars is equal to $\$1\times {\text{10}}^{\text{12}},$ and a stack of one-hundred $\$\text{100}$ bills is equal to $\$\text{10},\text{000},$ or $\$1\times {\text{10}}^{4}$. The number of stacks you will have is:

(3) Calculate the area of a football field in square inches. The area of a football field is $\text{100 yd}\times \text{50 yd,}$ which gives $\mathrm{5,}{\text{000 yd}}^{2}.$ Because we are working in inches, we need to convert square yards to square inches:

This conversion gives us $6\times {\text{10}}^{6}\phantom{\rule{0.25em}{0ex}}\text{in}{\text{.}}^{2}$ for the area of the field. (Note that we are using only one significant figure in these calculations.)

(4) Calculate the total volume of the bills. The volume of all the $\$\text{100}$-bill stacks is $9\phantom{\rule{0.25em}{0ex}}\text{in}{\text{.}}^{3}/\text{stack}\times {\text{10}}^{8}\text{stacks}=9\times {\text{10}}^{8}\phantom{\rule{0.25em}{0ex}}\text{in}{\text{.}}^{3}.$

(5) Calculate the height. To determine the height of the bills, use the equation:

The height of the money will be about 100 in. high. Converting this value to feet gives

**Discussion**

The final approximate value is much higher than the early estimate of 3 in., but the other early estimate of 10 ft (120 in.) was roughly correct. How did the approximation measure up to your first guess? What can this exercise tell you in terms of rough “guesstimates” versus carefully calculated approximations?

# Summary

Scientists often approximate the values of quantities to perform calculations and analyze systems.

# Problems & Exercises

How many heartbeats are there in a lifetime?

Sample answer: $2\times {\text{10}}^{9}$ heartbeats

A generation is about one-third of a lifetime. Approximately how many generations have passed since the year 0 AD?

How many times longer than the mean life of an extremely unstable atomic nucleus is the lifetime of a human? (Hint: The lifetime of an unstable atomic nucleus is on the order of ${\text{10}}^{-\text{22}}\text{s}$.)

Sample answer: $2\times {\text{10}}^{\text{31}}$ if an average human lifetime is taken to be about 70 years.

Calculate the approximate number of atoms in a bacterium. Assume that the average mass of an atom in the bacterium is ten times the mass of a hydrogen atom. (Hint: The mass of a hydrogen atom is on the order of ${\text{10}}^{-\text{27}}\text{kg}$ and the mass of a bacterium is on the order of ${\text{10}}^{-\text{15}}\text{kg.}$)

Approximately how many atoms thick is a cell membrane, assuming all atoms there average about twice the size of a hydrogen atom?

Sample answer: 50 atoms

(a) What fraction of Earth’s diameter is the greatest ocean depth? (b) The greatest mountain height?

(a) Calculate the number of cells in a hummingbird assuming the mass of an average cell is ten times the mass of a bacterium. (b) Making the same assumption, how many cells are there in a human?

Sample answers:

(a) ${\text{10}}^{\text{12}}$ cells/hummingbird

(b) ${\text{10}}^{\text{16}}$ cells/human

Assuming one nerve impulse must end before another can begin, what is the maximum firing rate of a nerve in impulses per second?

- College Physics
- Preface
- Introduction: The Nature of Science and Physics
- Kinematics
- Introduction to One-Dimensional Kinematics
- Displacement
- Vectors, Scalars, and Coordinate Systems
- Time, Velocity, and Speed
- Acceleration
- Motion Equations for Constant Acceleration in One Dimension
- Problem-Solving Basics for One-Dimensional Kinematics
- Falling Objects
- Graphical Analysis of One-Dimensional Motion

- Two-Dimensional Kinematics
- Dynamics: Force and Newton's Laws of Motion
- Introduction to Dynamics: Newton’s Laws of Motion
- Development of Force Concept
- Newton’s First Law of Motion: Inertia
- Newton’s Second Law of Motion: Concept of a System
- Newton’s Third Law of Motion: Symmetry in Forces
- Normal, Tension, and Other Examples of Forces
- Problem-Solving Strategies
- Further Applications of Newton’s Laws of Motion
- Extended Topic: The Four Basic Forces—An Introduction

- Further Applications of Newton's Laws: Friction, Drag, and Elasticity
- Uniform Circular Motion and Gravitation
- Work, Energy, and Energy Resources
- Introduction to Work, Energy, and Energy Resources
- Work: The Scientific Definition
- Kinetic Energy and the Work-Energy Theorem
- Gravitational Potential Energy
- Conservative Forces and Potential Energy
- Nonconservative Forces
- Conservation of Energy
- Power
- Work, Energy, and Power in Humans
- World Energy Use

- Linear Momentum and Collisions
- Statics and Torque
- Rotational Motion and Angular Momentum
- Introduction to Rotational Motion and Angular Momentum
- Angular Acceleration
- Kinematics of Rotational Motion
- Dynamics of Rotational Motion: Rotational Inertia
- Rotational Kinetic Energy: Work and Energy Revisited
- Angular Momentum and Its Conservation
- Collisions of Extended Bodies in Two Dimensions
- Gyroscopic Effects: Vector Aspects of Angular Momentum

- Fluid Statics
- Introduction to Fluid Statics
- What Is a Fluid?
- Density
- Pressure
- Variation of Pressure with Depth in a Fluid
- Pascal’s Principle
- Gauge Pressure, Absolute Pressure, and Pressure Measurement
- Archimedes’ Principle
- Cohesion and Adhesion in Liquids: Surface Tension and Capillary Action
- Pressures in the Body

- Fluid Dynamics and Its Biological and Medical Applications
- Introduction to Fluid Dynamics and Its Biological and Medical Applications
- Flow Rate and Its Relation to Velocity
- Bernoulli’s Equation
- The Most General Applications of Bernoulli’s Equation
- Viscosity and Laminar Flow; Poiseuille’s Law
- The Onset of Turbulence
- Motion of an Object in a Viscous Fluid
- Molecular Transport Phenomena: Diffusion, Osmosis, and Related Processes

- Temperature, Kinetic Theory, and the Gas Laws
- Heat and Heat Transfer Methods
- Thermodynamics
- Introduction to Thermodynamics
- The First Law of Thermodynamics
- The First Law of Thermodynamics and Some Simple Processes
- Introduction to the Second Law of Thermodynamics: Heat Engines and Their Efficiency
- Carnot’s Perfect Heat Engine: The Second Law of Thermodynamics Restated
- Applications of Thermodynamics: Heat Pumps and Refrigerators
- Entropy and the Second Law of Thermodynamics: Disorder and the Unavailability of Energy
- Statistical Interpretation of Entropy and the Second Law of Thermodynamics: The Underlying Explanation

- Oscillatory Motion and Waves
- Introduction to Oscillatory Motion and Waves
- Hooke’s Law: Stress and Strain Revisited
- Period and Frequency in Oscillations
- Simple Harmonic Motion: A Special Periodic Motion
- The Simple Pendulum
- Energy and the Simple Harmonic Oscillator
- Uniform Circular Motion and Simple Harmonic Motion
- Damped Harmonic Motion
- Forced Oscillations and Resonance
- Waves
- Superposition and Interference
- Energy in Waves: Intensity

- Physics of Hearing
- Electric Charge and Electric Field
- Introduction to Electric Charge and Electric Field
- Static Electricity and Charge: Conservation of Charge
- Conductors and Insulators
- Coulomb’s Law
- Electric Field: Concept of a Field Revisited
- Electric Field Lines: Multiple Charges
- Electric Forces in Biology
- Conductors and Electric Fields in Static Equilibrium
- Applications of Electrostatics

- Electric Potential and Electric Field
- Introduction to Electric Potential and Electric Energy
- Electric Potential Energy: Potential Difference
- Electric Potential in a Uniform Electric Field
- Electrical Potential Due to a Point Charge
- Equipotential Lines
- Capacitors and Dielectrics
- Capacitors in Series and Parallel
- Energy Stored in Capacitors

- Electric Current, Resistance, and Ohm's Law
- Circuits, Bioelectricity, and DC Instruments
- Magnetism
- Introduction to Magnetism
- Magnets
- Ferromagnets and Electromagnets
- Magnetic Fields and Magnetic Field Lines
- Magnetic Field Strength: Force on a Moving Charge in a Magnetic Field
- Force on a Moving Charge in a Magnetic Field: Examples and Applications
- The Hall Effect
- Magnetic Force on a Current-Carrying Conductor
- Torque on a Current Loop: Motors and Meters
- Magnetic Fields Produced by Currents: Ampere’s Law
- Magnetic Force between Two Parallel Conductors
- More Applications of Magnetism

- Electromagnetic Induction, AC Circuits, and Electrical Technologies
- Introduction to Electromagnetic Induction, AC Circuits and Electrical Technologies
- Induced Emf and Magnetic Flux
- Faraday’s Law of Induction: Lenz’s Law
- Motional Emf
- Eddy Currents and Magnetic Damping
- Electric Generators
- Back Emf
- Transformers
- Electrical Safety: Systems and Devices
- Inductance
- RL Circuits
- Reactance, Inductive and Capacitive
- RLC Series AC Circuits

- Electromagnetic Waves
- Geometric Optics
- Vision and Optical Instruments
- Wave Optics
- Introduction to Wave Optics
- The Wave Aspect of Light: Interference
- Huygens's Principle: Diffraction
- Young’s Double Slit Experiment
- Multiple Slit Diffraction
- Single Slit Diffraction
- Limits of Resolution: The Rayleigh Criterion
- Thin Film Interference
- Polarization
- *Extended Topic* Microscopy Enhanced by the Wave Characteristics of Light

- Special Relativity
- Introduction to Quantum Physics
- Atomic Physics
- Introduction to Atomic Physics
- Discovery of the Atom
- Discovery of the Parts of the Atom: Electrons and Nuclei
- Bohr’s Theory of the Hydrogen Atom
- X Rays: Atomic Origins and Applications
- Applications of Atomic Excitations and De-Excitations
- The Wave Nature of Matter Causes Quantization
- Patterns in Spectra Reveal More Quantization
- Quantum Numbers and Rules
- The Pauli Exclusion Principle

- Radioactivity and Nuclear Physics
- Medical Applications of Nuclear Physics
- Particle Physics
- Frontiers of Physics
- Atomic Masses
- Selected Radioactive Isotopes
- Useful Information
- Glossary of Key Symbols and Notation