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Physics Guidance Notes on Experimental Work Edexcel New Spec as A2

# Physics Guidance Notes on Experimental Work Edexcel New Spec as A2

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11/17/2014

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Guidance notes on experimental work.Section 1 – Treatment of uncertainties in Physics at AS and A2 levelPreamble
One of the main aims of the practical work undertaken in GCE Physics is for candidates todevelop a feeling for uncertainty in scientific data. Some of the treatment that follows mayappear daunting. That is not the intention. The estimates of uncertainties that are required inthis specification are more in the nature of educated guesses than statistically soundcalculations. It is the intention that candidates be introduced early in the course to estimatinguncertainties so that by the time their work is assessed, they have a relaxed attitude to it. Thesections in PH1 on density determinations and resistivity are ideal for this.
DefinitionsUncertainty
Uncertainty in measurements is unavoidable and estimates the range within which the answer is likely to lie. This is usually expressed as an absolute value, but can be given as a percentage.The normal way of expressing a measurement
x
0
, with its uncertainty,
u
, is
x
0
±
u
. This meansthat the true value of the measurement is likely to lie in the range
x
0

u
to
x
0
+
u
. Note: The term “error” is used in many textbooks instead of uncertainty. This term impliesthat something has gone wrong and is therefore best avoided.Uncertainties can be split up into two different categories:
-
Random uncertainties
– These occur in any measured quantity. The uncertainty of each reading cannot be reduced by repeat measurement but the more measurementswhich are taken, the closer the mean value of the measurements is likely to be to the“true” value of the quantity. Taking repeat readings is therefore a way of reducing the
effect
of random uncertainties.
-
Systematic uncertainties
– These can be due to a fault in the equipment, or design of the experiment e.g. possible zero error such as not taking into account the resistanceof the leads when measuring the resistance of an electrical component or use of a ruler at a different temperature from the one at which it is calibrated. The effect of thesecannot be reduced by taking repeat readings. If a systematic uncertainty is suspected,it must be tackled either by a redesign of the experimental technique or theoreticalanalysis. An example of this sort of uncertainty, the origin of which remainsmysterious, is in the determination of stellar distances by parallax. The differences between the distances, as determined by different observatories, often exceeds thestandard uncertainties by a large margin.
Percentage uncertainty
This is the absolute uncertainty expressed as a percentage of the best estimate of the truevalue of the quantity.
Resolution
This is the smallest quantity to which an instrument can measure

Mistake
This is the misreading of a scale or faulty equipment.
Suspect results
These are results that lie well outside the normal range e.g. points well away from a line or curve of best fit. They often arise from mistakes in measurement. These should be recordedand reason for discarding noted by the candidate.
How is the uncertainty in the measurement of a quantity estimated?1.Estimation of uncertainty using the spread of repeat readings.
Suppose the value a quantity
x
is measured several times and a series of differentvalues obtained:
x
1
,
x
2
,
x
3
……..
x
n
. [Normally, in our work,
n
will be a small number, say 3 or 5].Unless there is reason to suspect that one of the results is seriously out [i.e. it isanomalous], the best estimate of the true value of
x
is the arithmetic mean of thereadings:Mean value
1 2
........
n
x x x xn
+ +=
A reasonable estimate of the uncertainty is ½ the range:i.e.
maxmin
2
x xu
=
, where
max
x
is the maximum and
min
x
x
Example
The following results were obtained for the time it took for an object to roll down aslope.4.5 s, 4.8 s, 4.6 s, 5.1 s, 5.0 sThe best estimate of the true time is given by the mean which is:4.54.84.65.15.04.8s5
+ + + += =
The uncertainty,
u
, is given by:5.14.50.3s2
u
= =
The final answer and uncertainty should be quoted, with units, to the same no. of decimal places and the uncertainty to 1 sig. figi.e.
= 4.8 ± 0.3 s Note that, even if the initial results had be taken to the nearest 0.01 s, i.e. theresolution of an electronic stopwatch, the final result would still be given to 0.1 s because the first significant figure in the uncertainty is in the first place after thedecimal point.The percentage uncertainty,
p

0.3100%6%4.8
= × =
. Again,
p
is only expressed to 1 s.f.

2.Estimation of uncertainty from a single reading
Sometimes there may only be a single reading. Sometimes all the readings may beidentical. Clearly it cannot be therefore assumed that there is zero uncertainty in thereading(s).With analogue instruments, it is not expected that interpolated readings will be taken between divisions (this is clearly not possible with digital instrument anyway). Hence,the uncertainty cannot be less than ½ the smallest division of the instrument beingused, and is recommended it be taken to be ± the smallest division. In some cases,however, it will be larger than this due to other uncertainties such as reaction time[see later] and manufacturer’s uncertainties. If other sources of random uncertaintyare present, it is expected that in most cases repeat readings would be taken and theuncertainty estimated from the spread as above.
Take the resolution as ±1 mm. This may be unduly pessimistic, especially if care is taken toavoid parallax errors. It should be remembered that all length measurements using rulesactually involve two readings – one at each end – both of which are subject to uncertainty. Inmany cases the uncertainty may be greater than this due to the difficulty in measuring therequired quantity, for example due to parallax or due to the speed needed to take the readinge.g. rebound of a ball, in which case the precision could be ± 1 cm. In cases involvingtransient readings, it is expected that repeats are taken rather than relying on a guess as to theuncertainty.
Standard Masses
For 20g, 50g, 100g masses the precision can be taken as being as being ±1g this is probablymore accurate than the manufacturer’s [often about 3%]. Alternatively, if known, themanufacturer’s uncertainty can be used.
Digital meters [ammeters/voltmeters]
The uncertainty can be taken as being ± the smallest measurable division. Strictly this is oftentoo accurate as manufacturers will quote as bigger uncertainty. [e.g. 2% + 2 divisions]
Thermometers
Standard -10 ºC to 110 ºC take precision as 1ºCDigital thermometers uncertainty could be ± 0.1ºC. However the actual uncertainty may begreater due to difficulty in reading a digital scale as an object is being heated or cooled, whenthe substance is not in thermal equilibrium with itself let alone with the thermometer..