Just before the Trinity test, Enrico Fermi decided he wanted a rough estimate of the blast's power before the diagnostic data came in. So he dropped some pieces of paper from his hand as the blast wave passed him, and used this to estimate that the blast was equivalent to 10 kilotons of TNT. His guess was remarkably accurate for having so little data: the true answer turned out to be 20 kilotons of TNT.

Fermi had a knack for making roughly-accurate estimates with very little data, and therefore such an estimate is known today as a Fermi estimate.

Why bother with Fermi estimates, if your estimates are likely to be off by a factor of 2 or even 10? Often, getting an estimate within a factor of 10 or 20 is enough to make a decision. So Fermi estimates can save you a lot of time, especially as you gain more practice at making them.

Key points from Less Wrong:

  • Dare to be imprecise, round off values
  • Decompose the problem into smaller ones
  • Estimate by bounding using the approximate geometric mean
  • Sanity-check your answer with some reasonable analogue
  • Use Google as needed