Fermi Questions for Geomorphology

In 1963 Philip Morrison wrote a short article entitled Fermi Questions (see below for the citation). The idea is students should develop the power of ‘estimation of rough but quantitative answers to unexpected questions about many aspects of the natural world’. For example — ‘How many piano tuners are there in the city of Chicago?’. Enrico Fermi was aparently a master at this type of estimation.

Answering this style of question requires some confidence, a bit of skill and the ability to improvise with order-of-magnitude numbers and calculations. Because of this, I think this style of questioning is valuable for a geomorphologist.  I wonder if I could tailor some Fermi questions specifically designed geomorphology students? Such as:

  • How fast does a Barchan dune move?
  • How long does it take for a drop of water to get from the headwaters to the outlet of the Mississippi?
  • How long does it take for an entire lake to evaporate?

Further reading:

  • Morrison, P. (1963). Fermi questions. American Journal of Physics, 31(8), 626-627.
  • Guesstimation is a neat book of fermi questions: Weinstein, L., & Adam, J. A. (2009). Guesstimation: Solving the world’s problems on the back of a cocktail napkin. Princeton University Press.
  • see the review of Guesstimation from Science magazine by Mertens in 2008 hereMertens, S. (2008). On the Back of an Envelope. Science, 321(5893), 1160-1160.


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