Factorial vs Factorial: Some classical approximations

Since the dawn of time, humanity has been fascinated by the factorial function. This function is defined for all natural numbers, and the factorial of the natural number $n$ is denoted by $n!$. The number $n!$ is best defined as the number of permutations of $n$ objects. The number of permutations of no objects is exactly one so $0! = 1$. Otherwise we have
$$n! = 1\times 2 \times \cdots \times n$$ whenever $n > 0$. Actually, this formula also makes sense for $n=0$ if we are considering the formula to degenerate to the empty product.

Here is an example: $10! = 3628800$. For large numbers, computing the factorial can take some time so many mathematicians over the ages have come up with approximations to the factorial.

Stirling’s formula

Stirling derived the approxmation
$$n! \approx n^ne^{-n}\sqrt{2\pi n}.$$ Let’s test it out. Stirling approximates $10!$ as 3598695.6187410504 which is about 30104 less than the real value.

Burnside’s formula

Burnside derived the approximation
$$n! \approx \sqrt{2\pi}\left( \frac{n+1/2}{e}\right)^{n + 1/2}.$$ Let’s see if it’s better than Stirling’s formula. Burnside’s formula approximates $10!$ as 3643220.9817212913, which is only about 14421 greater than the true number. A little better!

Bauer’s formula

Bauer derived the approxmation
$$n! \approx n^ne^{-n}\sqrt{2\pi(n+1/6)}.$$ It is a formula that is very much in the spirit of Stirling’s formula but slightly corrected. Can it do better than Burnside’s formula or Stirling’s original formula? Testing it out on $10!$, it gives 3628560.824755708. Incredible! It’s only about 239 less than the true valie.

Ramanujan’s formula

The great Srinivas Ramanujan, whose deftness at manipulating infinite sums and numbers remains unparalleled to this day, came up with the formula
$$n!\approx \sqrt{\pi}n^ne^{-n}\left(8n^3 + 4n^2 + n + 1/30 \right)^{1/6}.$$ Can Ramanujan decimate the other formulas? Again, we test it out on $10!$ to obtain 3628800.311612623…shocking! The integer part of this number is exactly $10!$. Should we try it on another one? The factorial of 18 is


whereas Ramanujan’s formula gives


which is only 54964675.0 greater than the real value (less than $9\times 10^{-9}$ of the real value).


To further compare these I used the above formulas as approximations to $\log(n!)$ to make the computations easier and computed the absolute value of the difference between $\log(n!)$ and the log of each of the formulas above. I plotted the cumulative error up to $n=1000$. Here are the first three:

There is not much point in even putting the even better Ramanujan formula on the plot because it would also be flat so here is a separate plot with Bauer against Ramanujan:

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