Questions remain why it's taken this long for evidence of a much bigger spill to come to light. The calculations above are elementary and could have been undertaken as soon as BP obtained pictures of the leak.
Perhaps the executives of BP, Halliburton and Transocean are innocent of all technical details and maybe even of elementary geometry. (It would have been interesting if at the Senate hearing where each of them blamed the other two they were asked the formula for a cylinder and its relevance to the size of the spill.)
But even if we excuse the executives' lack of technical knowledge, it's very hard to believe that the smart engineers who work for them didn't have a good feel for the extent of the leak early on. If they did, why didn't they speak up?
Had the video and pictures been obtained when they first became available, they would have alerted us much earlier to the truly catastrophic nature of the spill, perhaps induced an even greater urgency to stopping it, and allowed us to plan more realistically for the environmental consequences. Sticking to their estimate of 5,000 barrels per day and talking about surveillance of the ocean surface from the sky seemed to be counterproductive at the very least. Did BP and others think they could rely forever on an innumerate public to take their word for the size of the spill?
John Allen Paulos, a professor of mathematics at Temple University in Philadelphia, is the author of the best-sellers "Innumeracy" and "A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper," as well as, most recently, "Irreligion: A Mathematician Explains Why the Arguments for God Just Don't Add Up."He's on Twitter and his "Who's Counting?" column on ABCNews.com usually appears the first weekend of every month.