Lectures on Physics has been derived from Benjamin Crowell's Light and Matter series of free introductory textbooks on physics. See the editorial for more information....

Order-of-Magnitude Estimates

It is the mark of an instructed mind to rest satisfied with the degree of precision that the nature of the subject permits and not to seek an exactness where only an approximation of the truth is possible.

It is a common misconception that science must be exact. For instance, in the Star Trek TV series, it would often happen that Captain Kirk would ask Mr. Spock, "Spock, we're in a pretty bad situation. What do you think are our chances of getting out of here?" The scientific Mr. Spock would answer with something like, "Captain, I estimate the odds as 237.345 to one." In reality, he could not have estimated the odds with six significant figures of accuracy, but nevertheless one of the hallmarks of a person with a good education in science is the ability to make estimates that are likely to be at least somewhere in the right ballpark. In many such situations, it is often only necessary to get an answer that is off by no more than a factor of ten in either direction. Since things that differ by a factor of ten are said to differ by one order of magnitude, such an estimate is called an order-of-magnitude estimate. The tilde, ~, is used to indicate that things are only of the same order of magnitude, but not exactly equal, as in

odds of survival ~ 100 to one.

The tilde can also be used in front of an individual number to emphasize that the number is only of the right order of magnitude.

Although making order-of-magnitude estimates seems simple and natural to experienced scientists, it's a mode of reasoning that is completely unfamiliar to most college students. Some of the typical mental steps can be illustrated in the following example.

Cost of transporting tomatoes.

s / Consider a spherical cow.

Approximating the shape of a tomato as a cube is an example of another general strategy for making order-of-magnitude estimates. A similar situation would occur if you were trying to estimate how many m2 of leather could be produced from a herd of ten thousand cattle. There is no point in trying to take into account the shape of the cows' bodies. A reasonable plan of attack might be to consider a spherical cow. Probably a cow has roughly the same surface area as a sphere with a radius of about 1 m, which would be 4π(1 m)2. Using the well-known facts that pi equals three, and four times three equals about ten, we can guess that a cow has a surface area of about 10 m2, so the herd as a whole might yield 105 m2 of leather.

The following list summarizes the strategies for getting a good order-of-magnitude estimate.

  1. Don't even attempt more than one significant figure of precision.

  2. Don't guess area or volume directly. Guess linear dimensions and get area or volume from them.

  3. When dealing with areas or volumes of objects with complex shapes, idealize them as if they were some simpler shape, a cube or a sphere, for example.

  4. Check your final answer to see if it is reasonable. If you estimate that a herd of ten thousand cattle would yield 0.01 m2 of leather, then you have probably made a mistake with conversion factors somewhere.

Last Update: 2010-11-11