Why It Takes a Genius to Plan an Event

Why it take a genius to plan an event


Have you ever wondered how many people may show up for your event? What if you are an association and you need to figure out the best possible location to host your conference. Well, the nuclear physicist Enrico Fermi has a formula for you that will help you plan your events.

Apparently Enrico Fermi, known as the architect of the nuclear age devised a method of approximation that was used during the first nuclear bomb test. Fermi developed what is known as the Fermi estimate. The Fermi estimate is as “back-of-the-envelope” styled formulation to make good approximate calculations with little or no actual data. This method takes a problem that was initially viewed as being too big to be solved by breaking the problem down into sub problems that are more easily answered.

The classic example used to describe the Fermi estimation process is taken from a group of meeting planners trying to assess the number of possible attendees for a piano tuners conference in Chicago. Finding the Fermi estimate of this number would typically involve multiplying a series of rough estimates, such as the population of Chicago, an approximate number of households owning pianos, the frequency with which a typical piano might be tuned, and so on.

The following formula can be used to calculate a close estimate of the number of piano tuners in the Chicago area: 1. There are approximately 9,000,000 people living in Chicago. 2. On average, there are two persons in each household in Chicago. 3. Roughly one household in twenty has a piano that is tuned regularly. 4. Pianos that are tuned regularly are tuned on average about once per year. 5. It takes a piano tuner about two hours to tune a piano, including travel time. 6. Each piano tuner works eight hours in a day, five days in a week, and 50 weeks in a year.

From these numbers, we can compute that the amount of piano tunings in a single year in the Chicago area:

(9,000,000 persons in Chicago) / (2 persons/household) × (1 piano/20 households) × (1 piano tuning per piano per year) = 225,000 piano tunings per year in Chicago.

We can similarly calculate that the average piano tuner performs:

(50 weeks/year)×(5 days/week)×(8 hours/day)/(2 hours to tune a piano) = 1000 piano tunings per year per piano tuner. Dividing gives (225,000 piano tunings per year in Chicago) / (1000 piano tunings per year per piano tuner) = 225 piano tuners in Chicago. Turns out that the actual number of piano tuners in Chicago is about 290. Pretty close estimate when you think about it.

So the next time you need to know how many might attend a conference when you have very little information – consider using the Fermi estimate and you can tell your boss or client that it really does take a genius to plan an event.

References: Language Log, WolframAlpha. 



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