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Solving complex problems through simple physics – book review

Guesstimation 2.0 Solving Today’s Problems on the Back of a Napkin succeeds where most popular science literature so often fails. This is because it provides its readers with a scientific tool they can use immediately in their everyday lives.

Lawrence Weinstein, Professor of Physics at Old Dominion University, and author of Guesstimation 2.0 Solving Today’s Problems on the Back of a Napkin first provides a tutorial on how to appropriately frame questions that appear too difficult to answer. His walkthrough describes how to decompose questions into simpler parts and equations, bound the limits that will be estimated, and understand the confidence with which the estimate can be applied.

With that, you will soon find yourself working through the process of estimating the energy generated by Niagara Falls. Instead you may determine the load limit of the Golden Gate Bridge. Or you could determine the power of a supernova. The moral of Dr. Weinstein’s story is that most problems that appear too complex can actually be estimated by applying the physics we learned in high school.

What carries the book forward is Dr. Weinstein’s casual manner and humor. Readers are never overwhelmed with scientific jargon. Readers are not patronized with a dumbed-down version of science. In fact, Dr. Weinstein makes an effort to appeal to audiences regardless of their scientific inclination. For example, cosmic rays are described as carrying energy that can wiggle electrons free from their atoms while he then describes the electromagnetic interactions in a footnote. Solutions often are summarized with a cute, snarky take-away that compels you to peek at the next question.

This is a book that defines a subway read. Guesstimation 2.0 Solving Today’s Problems on the Back of a Napkin lends itself to brief sittings and multiple readings. Each subchapter is pleasantly compartmentalized into no more than three pages and stands independent enough from its predecessor that one can pick it up from any page.

Certain readers will be drawn to certain chapters more than others depending upon their own personal preferences. For instance, chapters relating to recycling and transportation may be more compelling than others.

Going forward, the Guesstimation 2.0 Solving Today’s Problems on the Back of a Napkin franchise could certainly focus future books on questions devoted to specific subjects such as climate change and sustainable energy, and the Earth’s energy resources. For now, Guesstimation 2.0 Solving Today’s Problems on the Back of a Napkin make an excellent addition for the casual scientist, job interviewee, or anyone hoping to impress their friends at a party.

How to order:

Guesstimation 2.0 Solving Today’s Problems on the Back of a Napkin

Author: Lawrence Weinstein, Ph.D.

Publisher: Princeton University Press

ISBN: 9780691150802

Gabriel Thoumi, CFA, Climate Bonds Initiative Advisory Panel, is also a natural resource scientist.

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