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It's a Good Guess: Weinstein, Adam Book Will Be Popular

Larry Weinstein and John Adam work in rarefied realms of science, the former as a nuclear physicist who conducts atom-smashing experiments and the latter as a mathematician who develops mathematical models of how tumors grow and wounds heal. But the colleagues at Old Dominion University in Norfolk have written a new book about numbers that almost anyone can find interesting.

"Guesstimation: Solving the World's Problems on the Back of a Cocktail Napkin," which arrives in bookstores in April, generated enough advance orders to cause Princeton University Press to bump up its initial press run to 7,500.

In 12 chapters and more than 80 "guesstimation" examples, the authors explain how to make useful ballpark estimates by breaking complex problems into more manageable ones. To the question, "How many circus clowns can fit into a Volkswagen Beetle?" they establish a low bound for the answer (1 clown) and high bound (100 clowns), and then find the approximate geometric mean of those two numbers, 10, which is their guesstimate.

Another example explores the question, "What are the relative costs of fuel (per mile) of New York City bicycle rickshaws (human pedaled taxis) and of automobiles?" They show that rickshaw fuel, which is food, is about twice as expensive per mile as automobile fuel, and this explains why the automobile is the dominant form of transportation in America.

Brisk and entertaining prose makes the science and mathematics of the book easy for the layman to grasp. Illustrations by Patricia Edwards, a lecturer in ODU's art department, also brighten up the pages.

Behind the fun puzzles and fetching qualities of the book, however, is plain usefulness. Policymakers dealing with complex numbers about pollutants in the atmosphere or businessmen struggling with investment decisions can learn from the authors to keep their thinking on plausible tracks. Numeric literacy is in high demand in today's numbers saturated world, so much so that more and more businesses are asking estimation questions in employment interviews to test applicants' abilities to think on their feet.

The Princeton University Press, which is featuring the book for eight weeks on the front page of its Web site (www.pup.princeton.edu), reported in late March that it had run out of review copies because of high demand. Weinstein gave his own first copy to a newspaper reporter who contacted him. Reviews were scheduled to run in several national publications, including Popular Science.

Endorsements, which appear on the PUP Web site and on the book jacket, reveal the broad appeal of the book.

Businessmen and workplace performance strategists have been quick to realize the book's potential usefulness as a problem-solving tutorial. In his review, Martin Yate, the author of the "Knock 'Em Dead" job-search and career-management books, wrote: "Wow, I suddenly grasped concepts that have eluded me for a lifetime. If you work anywhere in the professional world and are aiming for the corner office, this little book could have significant impact on both your analytical abilities and the way you are perceived by others."

Futurists, too, are praising the book. "In a world where we are constantly bombarded with quantitative information (and disinformation) and where implausible factoids become established truths by repetition, acquiring a sound grounding in numeric literacy has almost become a civic duty. Weinstein and Adam show to us that it can also be fun!" wrote Riccardo Rebonato, author of "Plight of the Fortune Tellers." He said the book will be useful to "virtually everyone: politicians, students, policymakers and, yes, sometimes even physicists."

As for Weinstein and Adam, they say they have been told by their contacts at PUP that the publishing house is thrilled by the attention the book is getting. Rights for publication in Chinese have been sold, Weinstein said. "I am looking forward to receiving a totally unreadable copy of my own book."

Adam, who was born and educated in England, said he is hoping the BBC will take note of the book and that sales will justify him making a tour of his homeland to promote it.

Both men hold the designation of University Professor, which recognizes outstanding achievement in teaching at ODU. Both are noted, as well, for their scholarship and research.

Weinstein, who conducts research at the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility in Newport News, was elected a Fellow of the American Physical Society on the strength of his original contributions to the study of nucleon-nucleon correlations in nuclei. He is active in outreach initiatives to explain physics to the public, and especially to schoolchildren, and he writes a column on estimation for The Physics Teacher magazine.

Adam's research involves mathematical modeling in areas ranging from biology to astrophysics. He was a 2007 winner of a State Council of Higher Education in Virginia (SCHEV) Outstanding Faculty Award, which is given for teaching, research and service.

He also has worked previously with Princeton University Press, having produced the text and photographs for a book, "Mathematics in Nature: Modeling Patterns in the Natural World," which PUP published in 2003. The book won the Association of American Publishers Mathematics and Statistics Professional/Scholarly Award in 2004 and was one of Choice's Outstanding Academic Titles for 2004.

This article was posted on: April 16, 2008

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