From NYT: Good at approximation? Maybe you are the next math superstar!

Interesting article in the NYT science section on the power of approximation and how those folks who are the best at ball park guessing, may have a natural ability for advanced mathematics.

“When mathematicians and physicists are left alone in a room, one of the games they’ll play is called a Fermi problem, in which they try to figure out the approximate answer to an arbitrary problem,” said Rebecca Saxe, a cognitive neuroscientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who is married to a physicist. “They’ll ask, how many piano tuners are there in Chicago, or what contribution to the ocean’s temperature do fish make, and they’ll try to come up with a plausible answer.”

“What this suggests to me,” she added, “is that the people whom we think of as being the most involved in the symbolic part of math intuitively know that they have to practice those other, nonsymbolic, approximating skills.”

So, I had an expensive lunch today. $10, plus $2 worth of iced tea and a $3 tip. But! Two kebabs, a pile of rice, a Greek salad and two lamb chops! It was late, I completed a big and miserable project and wanted to treat myself. Besides, who has lamb chops for lunch?! Anyway, back to the approximating. My lunch was about $15. AIG's bail-out loan from the Fed is estimated at $85 billion. So, that is about 5.6 billion kebab, lamb chop, Greek salad, rice and iced tea lunches.

My beloved San Fernando Valley has about 1.8 million people and, if it was a city, it would be the 6th most populous in the nation. If I got an $85 billion dollar loan from the federal government, I could buy about 3000 lunches for every person in the San Fernando Valley. From the equine estates of Chatsworth to the Tarzana chicken coop of Mark Frauenfelder, from the handmade carnitas of Carrillo's in San Fernando to the Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, I could buy 3000 lunches per resident. Let's face it, with two kebabs and two lamb chops, that is a dinner. So, an extremely hearty lunch, a sturdy dinner and I will add two egg McMuffins for breakfast so, let's see, that would raise the per day cost per resident to about $33. Perhaps that won't get you far in Londo but, in Los Angeles, that is an ample per diem!

At $33 per day, I could buy every resident in the Valley breakfast, lunch and dinner for, hmm, about 3 years? Or I could just buy everybody a new $50,000 Mercedes!

NYT: Gut Instinct's Surprising Role in Math (Registration required)
Also, from NYT, fun little game to check your mathematic gut instinct

(Mister Jalopy is a guest blogger!)