Skip to main content

How Many Licks? – Aaron Santos ****

Author Aaron Santos takes on the rarely considered but entertaining job of solving Fermi problems: making back-of-an-envelope estimates of numbers that range from the trivial, like the number of licks need to reach the centre of the lolly in the title of the book, to questions like ‘How many babies are born every day?’ The full title is ‘How many licks, or how to estimate damn near anything.’
I thought this might prove a bit samey after a while – there are 69 problems in all, ending in estimating which uses more silicon in the USA, computer chips or silicone implants (I know silicone isn’t the same as silicon, but it does contain it). In fact, each time I wanted to turn on and get to the next one.
The more enthusiastic may want to try to work out some of these as they go along. I was happy to take Santos’ word for it and just enjoy the ride. I do occasionally do this sort of thing for real, but I didn’t particularly want to do so for the problems cited here.
If there’s any complaint it was a slight inconsistency in deciding whether or not to make the assumption that ‘the United States of America’ and ‘the world’ are the same thing (this is, if assumed, not a great piece of estimating on the author’s part). So, for instance, when answering ‘How much deforestation would result each year if people chopped down their (Christmas) trees from a forest rather than getting an artificial tree or getting one from a tree farm?’ the question appears to apply to the whole world, but Santos bases his estimate of ‘How many people get real Christmas trees each year?’ on a percentage of the US population.
That apart, it was fun all the way. The book appears to have been professionally published, though it does rather have the feel of a self-published volume – it’s a little flimsy and unusual in the layout – but seems to have been properly edited and the illustrations and formulae are neatly done.
All in all an enjoyable gift book, or some light reading if you like the idea of playing around with estimating… or just want to be surprised how relatively easy it is estimate some surprisingly obscure numbers.
Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Ancestral Night (SF) - Elizabeth Bear *****

Only a couple of weeks ago, reviewing a 1960s SF book, I bemoaned the fact that science fiction novels of ideas are less common now. Although it is correctly labelled a space opera, Ancestral Night delivers ideas with aplomb.

Let's deal with the space opera aspect first. Elizabeth Bear provides some excellent adventure scenes in space, and we've the usual mix of huge spaceships and interesting aliens. Main character Haimey Dz is an engineer on a ship that salvages wrecks - but, as we gradually discover - she also has a forgotten past. A major feature of the storyline (one that seems to link to the medieval idea of the lost wisdom of the past) is ancient technology from a long-dead race with capabilities, notably manipulating spacetime mentally (Bear has yet to point out that the travel technologies used here could manipulate time as well as space), which fit well with Arthur C. Clarke's magic definition.

I particularly liked the (surely intentional) nods to the much-misse…

The Creativity Code - Marcus du Sautoy *****

At first glance this might just be another 'What AI is good at and not so good at' title. And in a way, it is. But, wow, what a brilliant book! Marcus du Sautoy takes us on a tour of what artificial intelligence has achieved (and possibly can in the future achieve) in a range of fields from his own of mathematics, through game playing, music, art and more.

After a little discussion of what creativity is, we start off with the now very familiar story of DeepMind's AlphaGo and its astonishing ability to take on the hugely challenging game of Go. Even though I've read about this many times before, du Sautoy, as a Go player and mathematician, gives a real feel for why this was such a triumph - and so shocking. Not surprisingly he is also wonderful on what mathematicians actually do, how computers have helped them to date and how they have the potential to do far more in the future. After all, mathematics is by far the closest science to game playing, as it has strict rule…

The Demon in the Machine - Paul Davies *****

Physicists have a habit of dabbling in biology and, perhaps surprisingly, biologists tend to be quite tolerant of it. (I find it hard to believe the reverse would be true if biologists tried to do physics.) Perhaps one reason for that tolerance is Schrödinger’s lecture series and book What is Life?, which had a huge impact on molecular biology and with a reference to which, not surprisingly, Paul Davies begins his fascinating book. 

At the heart of the The Demon in the Machine (we'll come back to that demon in a moment) is the relationship between life and information. In essence, Davies points out that if we try to reduce life to its simple physical components it is like trying to work with a computer that has no software. The equivalent of software here is information, not just in the best publicised aspect of the information stored in the DNA, but on a far broader scale, operating in networks across the organism.
This information and its processing gives life its emergent compl…