We all have an intuitive sense of how large a number like 10 or 100 is. But is it possible to get some direct grasp on the world’s population, the national debt, the distance to the nearest galaxies, or the time that has passed since the formation of the earth? Mathematicians and scientists do have good ways of understanding and estimating very large numbers, which we’ll discuss in this class. Students will do many examples in class, and will answer questions like “estimate the number of grains of sand on all the world’s beaches,” or “estimate how fast we’ll have to produce solar cells if we want to meet all new demands on power with solar energy.” The goals of this class are to develop an intuition for large numbers, by learning to: 1) estimate large numbers, 2) break down large numbers into intuitively comprehensible ones, and 3) make scale models in space and time. Additionally, we will aim to make inferences from rough estimates.

No mathematical background is assumed. Since this type of skill isn’t always covered in regular courses, more advanced students may also find it worthwhile.

Students in this course will be assessed on a pass/fail basis only.