Dealing with uncertainty in calculations - example calculation of coin density Say you measured a 10 cent coin’s diameter with

the venier callipers and found its diameter to be 23.58mm.
Diameter = 23.58 ± 0.01mm (It is ± 0.01mm as the smallest scale division (the limit of reading) on the vernier callipers is 0.02mm)

The radius is therefore ½ this.

r = 11.79 ± 0.005mm
The height of the coin was measured with a micrometer screw gauge (which has a smallest scale division of 0.01mm).

h = 2.12 ± 0.005mm

Volume = Area of base x height and Area = πr2 x h, so:
Volume = π(11.79 ± 0.005)2 x 2.12 ± 0.005mm

Convert the absolute uncertainties to the relative (percentage) uncertainties so they can be added together:

V = π(11.79mm ± 0.04241%)2 x 2.12mm ± 0.23585%
= 925.79183 mm3 ± 0.32067 %

Convert the mm3 to cm3 (the unit for density is g/cm3) V = 0. 92579183 cm3 ± 0.32067 %

The mass of the coin was measured to be 5.696 ± 0.0005g (smallest scale division was 0.001g)

Convert the absolute uncertainty of the mass to its relative (percentage) uncertainty so it can be added to relative uncertainty of the volume.

= 6.1525710375 g/cm3 ± 0.32944809 %

Convert the relative uncertainty back to an absolute
= 6.1525710375 ± 0.0202695278 g/cm3

Rounding off the answer and the uncertainty
Note this with respect to rounding (adapted from Bell, S. (2001). Measurement Good Practice Guide - A Beginner's Guide to Uncertainty of Measurement (Issue 2 ed.). Teddington, Middlesex, United Kingdom: Centre for Basic, Thermal and Length Metrology - National Physical Laboratory.): Calculators and spreadsheets can give an answer to many decimal places. There are some recommended practices for rounding the results: Rounding of values should be carried out only at the end of the calculation, to avoid rounding errors. For example, if 2.346 is rounded up to 2.35 at an early stage in a calculation, it could later be rounded up to 2.4. But if 2.346 is used throughout a calculation it would be correctly rounded to 2.3 at the final stage. Although results are finally rounded either up or down, depending on which is the nearest figure, the rule for rounding uncertainties is different. The final uncertainty is rounded up to the next largest figure, not down.

Rounding the answer:
First round the answer to the correct number of significant figures. As the values we measured were either multiplied of divided, we simply need to find the measurement with the least significant figures, and use that for our answer. We measured the diameter (4 s.f.), the height (3 s.f.) and the mass (4 s.f.), so the answer needs to be rounded to 3 significant figures. So the answer, 6.1525710375 g/cm3 becomes 6.15 g/cm3

Rounding the uncertainty:
As stated earlier, rounding with the uncertainty is different. In the units we have the answer in, cm and g, the number of decimal places the initial measurements’ uncertainties were in are: Diameter = ± 0.01mm = ± 0.001 cm (three decimal places) Height = ± 0.005mm = ± 0.0005cm (four decimal places) Mass = ± 0.0005g (four decimal places) It is not unreasonable to round our final uncertainty to three decimal places as this is the number of decimals in the uncertainty of our least certain measurement. Therefore ± 0.0202695278 is rounded up to ± 0.021 (remember we always round uncertainties up – it’s better to be under confident than over confident)

The final answer is:
6.15 ± 0.021 g/cm3

Of course, you could argue that you should round off the uncertainty to the least number of significant figures of the uncertainties of the measurement! All the uncertainties were to 1 sig fig, so we could then round our measurement up to ± 0.03. The thing to bear in mind with rounding the uncertainty is to be overly harsh - don’t appear more certain than you are!

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