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Unit 6

Uncertainties
An uncertainty in a measurement estimates the range within which the answer is
likely to lie.
Uncertainties can be expressed in two ways: As an absolute uncertainty or as a
percentage uncertainty.

Absolute uncertainty
An absolute uncertainty of a measurement depends on what instrument is being
used to make the measurement. This table shows the absolute uncertainties for a
number of instruments.
It is important to note that the unit of the absolute uncertainty must be the same as
the unit of the measurement, so make sure that you convert units if required.
Instrument
Meter rule
Vernier calipers
Micrometer screw gauge
Balance
Human reaction time
Stopwatch
Thermometer
Protractor

Absolute uncertainty
1mm
0.1mm
0.01mm
0.1g
0.1s
0.01s
1C
1

A measurement displayed with an absolute uncertainty generally follows this


format:

Measurement Absolute uncertainty (units)


e.g. 74 1mm

For example, a student used a meter rule to measure the length of the side of a
book and found the length to be 23cm. What are the maximum and minimum
possible values of the length of the book?
The absolute uncertainty of the instrument used (meter rule) is 1mm. However,
the measurement is 23cm, but its unit must be the same as the unit of the absolute
uncertainty, so you can either convert the uncertainty of the meter rule to
centimeters, or convert the measurement to millimeters. If converting the
uncertainty to cm,

Absolute uncertainty = 0.1cm


Possible range of values = 23 0.1cm
Minimum possible value = 23 0.1 = 22.9cm
Maximum possible value = 23 + 0.1 = 23.1cm

Percentage uncertainty
The percentage uncertainty of a measurement is the same as the absolute
uncertainty expressed as a percentage relative to the actual measurement.
A measurement displayed with a percentage uncertainty generally follows this
format:

Measurement (units) Percentage uncertainty


It is important to note that the uncertainty itself doesnt have a unit as it is a
percentage.
e.g. 255g 4%

Calculating percentage uncertainty


In order to calculate the percentage uncertainty of a measurement, the absolute
uncertainty of the instrument used to measure must be known.
It is important to note that the unit of the absolute uncertainty and the unit of the
measurement must be the same.
Percentage uncertainty is generally calculated in the following way

For example, a student uses Vernier calipers to measure the diameter of a coin. The
student finds that the diameter of the coin is approximately 21mm. Express the
possible values for the diameter of this coin in the form of a percentage uncertainty.
Absolute uncertainty = 0.1mm
Measurement = 21mm
Percentage uncertainty = 0.1/21 * 100 = 0.48%
Therefore the range of possible values of the diameter of the coin is:
21mm 0.48%

Uncertainties in equations
When asked to calculate the uncertainty of a value that is determined by an
equation, all sources of uncertainty from the variables in that equation must be
considered.
For example, in order to calculate the speed that a ball travels at over a certain
distance, the distance will be measured with a meter rule and the time taken will be
measured with a stopwatch.
In this experiment, we have two sources of uncertainty the instrument used to
measure distance and the instrument used to measure time. These must both be
considered when calculating the percentage uncertainty in speed. The following
table explains the rules on how to deal with uncertainties in different types of
equations.
It is important to note that when doing uncertainty calculations with equations, all
values should be in the form of a percentage uncertainty.
Operation

Example
of
equation

Percentage
uncertainty in
the value of a

Division

Description of how to
calculate

Calculate the percentage


uncertainties in the values of
and c then add them.
Calculate the percentage
uncertainties in the values of
and c then add them.
Calculate the percentage
uncertainties in the values of
and c then add them.
Calculate the percentage
uncertainties in the values of
and c then add them.
Calculate the percentage
uncertainty of the base and
multiply it by the index.
Reciprocal doesnt affect
uncertainty just calculate
percentage uncertainty in b.
Constant k doesnt affect
uncertainty just calculate
percentage uncertainty in b.

Multiplicati
on
Addition

Subtraction

Powers

Reciprocal

Constant
(k)

The following table shows the same information as the table above, with examples
of real equations (except addition and subtraction).
Operation

Example

Percentage
uncertainty

Description of how to
calculate

Division

Multiplicati
on
Powers

Reciprocal

Constant
()

Calculate the percentage


uncertainties in the values of
d and t then add them.
Calculate the percentage
uncertainties in the values of
I and t then add them.
Calculate the percentage
uncertainty of I and multiply
it by the 2, then add the
percentage uncertainty of R.
Reciprocal doesnt affect
uncertainty just calculate
percentage uncertainty in T.
Constant doesnt affect
uncertainty just calculate
percentage uncertainty in r
and multiply by 2.

For example, a student conducts an experiment to investigate the properties of a


wire and to calculate its resistivity. A meter rule is used to measure the length of
the wire, which is found to be about 82cm. A micrometer screw gauge is used to
measure the diameter of the wire, which is found to be about 2mm. Given that the
resistance of the wire is 2 with negligible uncertainty, calculate the resistivity of
the wire and its percentage uncertainty.
First, find the equation that relates all of these variables. Here we must use the
resistivity equation.

But we must put the equation in terms of the variables that we have, which are
resistance, diameter and length.
Using the formula for the area of a circle, we can derive:

By using the given values for R, d and l:


Resistivity = 7.66 * 10-6 m
Absolute uncertainty of meter rule = 0.1cm
Absolute uncertainty of micrometer screw gauge = 0.01mm

Percentage uncertainty in length = 0.1/82 * 100 = 0.12%


Percentage uncertainty in diameter = 0.01/2 * 100 = 0.5%
Ignoring all the constants, we can work out the general rule to calculate the
percentage uncertainty for the resistivity.

By substituting the values of %Ud and %Ul we get:


%Up = 2 * 0.5 + 0.12 = 1.12%
Therefore, the possible range of values for the resistivity are:
7.66 * 10-6 m 1.12%
Or 7.66 m 1.12%

A website states that the resistivity of copper is 7.88 m. Use your calculations to
determine whether the sheet might be made from copper.
Maximum possible resistivity = 7.66 * 10-6 + 1.12% = 7.75 * 10-6 m
The maximum possible value for the resistivity of the wire is 7.75 * 10-6 m, which
is slightly lower than the value for the resistivity of copper given by the website.
This could suggest that the wire may be made of copper, but not purely made of
copper. The wire is likely made of an alloy.

Uncertainties in sets of results


When given a set of results and asked to find the percentage uncertainty, the
general rule is:

It is important to note that all obvious anomalies should be ignored when


calculating the mean and range.

For example, a student makes the following measurements for the length of a sheet
of metal. Calculate the percentage uncertainty in the value for the length of the
sheet.

Length of sheet

Reading
1
297

Reading
2
302

Reading
3
358

Reading 4
305

Reading
5
298

(mm)
Before starting calculations, Reading 3 is clearly an anomaly so it will be discarded.
First, calculate the range and mean of these values.
Mean = (297+302+305+298)/4 = 300.5
Range = 305-297 = 8
%U = (0.5*8/300.5)*100 = 1.33%

Accuracy and precision in measurements


Accuracy describes the nearness of a measurement to the true value. For example,
in target shooting a high score indicates the nearness to the bull's eye and is a
measure of the shooter's accuracy.
Precision is the degree to which several measurements provide answers very close
to each other. It is an indicator of the scatter in the data. The lesser the scatter,
higher the precision.

Precision
Imprecise measurements are caused by random uncertainties.
There are a number of methods which can be used to make a measurement more
precise:

Using measurement tools with a higher precision


E.g. If measuring the diameter of a coin, using Vernier calipers will yield more
precise measurements than using a meter rule because the precision of the
Vernier calipers is smaller than that of the meter rule, meaning the
measurements taken with the Vernier calipers will have a smaller percentage
uncertainty.
Taking larger measurements
When possible, taking larger measurements will yield more precise results.
This is because the percentage uncertainty decreases when larger

measurements are made, because the precision of the measuring tool


remains constant.
E.g. Rather than measuring the thickness of a sheet of metal, you could get
more precise values by folding the sheet multiple times and measuring the
thickness of the folded sheet, because the instrument precision is the same
and the thickness is greater.

Accuracy
Inaccurate measurements are caused by systematic uncertainties.
There are a number of methods which can be used to make a measurement more
accurate:

Take multiple readings and calculate an average


Taking multiple readings allows for any anomalies to be identified and
discarded. Taking an average of the non-anomalous readings will reduce the
percentage uncertainty of the measurement.
E.g. You wouldn't time a single swing of a pendulum, but rather, find the
mean of 10 or more swings.
Take readings at different points
When measuring things such as the diameter of a wire, a more accurate
value can be determined by taking readings at different points along the wire,
as some points might be dented or have deformities. Taking readings at
different points allows anomalies to be found easier.
Other examples where this applies:
o Measuring the depth of a container of water
Measure the depth at different points of the container rather than just
one point.
o Measuring the diameter of a coin
Measure the diameter between different sets of two points around the
coin rather than just one.
Avoid causes of systematic error
Typical sources of systematic error in an experiment are:
o Parallax error in scales
When taking readings from a measuring tool such as a thermometer,
meter rule or analog ammeter/voltmeter, parallax error occurs when
the line of sight is not perpendicular to the object being measured. A
set square can also be used to set up a vertical meter rule such that it
is perpendicular to the surface or floor.
o Zero error in measuring tools
Any indication that a measuring system gives a false reading when the
true value of a measured quantity is zero, e.g. the needle on an
ammeter failing to return to zero when no current flows. A zero error
may result in a systematic uncertainty. This happens in equipment
such as Vernier calipers, micrometer screw gauges and balances.
Consider external factors from the surroundings
Many factors from the surroundings can affect the accuracy of readings.
Some of these are:

Background radiation
When doing any experiment involving count rates, e.g. testing beta
emitters, the background count rate from the Earth and the
surroundings must be considered because it affects the accuracy of the
readings. The background count rate is normally subtracted from the
count rate found. This gives a corrected count rate which is more
accurate.
Temperature
Changes in the temperature of the surroundings can affect certain
values, e.g. length of a piece of metal or even the speed of sound.
Keeping the temperature constant will keep readings accurate.
Light
The accuracy of the results from experiments which involve light, e.g.
calculating the intensity of a light bulb, can be affected by the light
from the surroundings such as sunlight. Precautions that can be taken
to avoid this are turning off the lights, and using shades or barriers to
block light from outside or the surroundings.

Graphs
In most Unit 6 graph questions, the student will be dealing with equations that have
exponents in them such as:

A typical question will ask for example, how to determine the value of the StefanBoltzmann constant using a graphical method, with the first equation above.
If the equation that the student is dealing with contains exponents, logarithms must
be used to write the equation in the form of y = mx + c. When written in this form,
it allows us to get values such as the y intercept and the gradient which could help
to calculate constants.
When finding the gradient of a graph, draw dotted lines to show a large triangle that
includes at least half the plotted length.

For example, explain clearly how the student can determine the value of through
the use of a graphical method for the equation
.
First, we must apply logarithms to both sides of the equations.

Using our laws of logarithms,

Comparing this to y = mx + c,

A graph of ln L against ln T would mean that the gradient of the graph is 4, and the
y intercept of the graph would be ln A.
Use antilogarithms of ln A with the value of the y intercept, and divide by the
value of A to find the value of .

Tables
The typical table question will ask the student to fill in a column with data that must
be calculated. Sometimes, the student will also have to put a column header.
It is important to note that if the values already in the table are all to the same
number of significant figures, the values that the student enters should also be to
the same amount of significant figures.

For example, the following data was obtained:


m /kg
0.100
0.150
0.200
0.250
0.300
0.350

/m
0.641
0.776
0.905
1.012
1.103
1.196

Use the column provided to show your processed data, which will be used to draw a
straight line graph for the equation 2 = km.
The first thing you should notice is that all values are to 4 significant figures, so your
calculated values should also be to 4 significant figures.
To sketch the graph 2 = km, we need to calculate the values of 2 that will go on
the y axis. We will enter these values into the third column, making sure they are all
to 4 significant figures.
Values entered are in blue.
m /kg
0.100
0.150
0.200
0.250
0.300
0.350

/m
0.641
0.776
0.905
1.012
1.103
1.196

2 /m2
0.411
0.602
0.819
1.024
1.217
1.430

Watch out for the units of the last column!