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Methodist College

Uncertainty 1. What is uncertainty? 1.1 All measurements in Physics are estimates. There is no such thing as the exact value for a quantity being measured. 1.2 For example, let us say the length of a table is measured with a meter rule. The reading obtained is 2.543 m. 1.3 Another experimenter measures the length of the table with a better instrument and obtains a result of 2.5434 m. This is one significant figure more than the first. 1.4 A third experimenter uses even better equipment and obtains a result of 2.54341 m. 1.5 This can go on and on. Therefore one can never say a certain reading is exact because someone else can come along and obtain one more significant figure in the result. 1.6 All the above results are correct but to different degrees of uncertainty. 1.7 The first reading, 2.543 m, indicates that the experimenter found the value to be between 2.542 and 2.544. This is written as 2.543 0.001. 1.8 Similarly the second reading indicates that the value is between 2.5433 and 2.5435, i.e. 2.5434 0.0001 m 1.9 The quantity written with the in front of it is the uncertainty in the measurement. It means that the experimenter is uncertain what the last significant figure is. He expresses this uncertainty as a range of values. 1.10 In general, when a reading is expressed in the form of a number, the uncertainty is 1 at the last significant figure given. Example: 54 means 54 1 that is between 53 and 55 136.0 means 136.0 0.1 that is between 135.9 and 136.1 0.0037 means 0.0037 0.0001 that is between 0.0036 and 0.0038 1.11 It could also be 2 or 3 and so on depending on the type of instrument used and the technique of measurement used. 1.12 If a measurement is given as 2300, it could mean 2300 100, or 2300 10 or even 2300 1. To avoid the confusion, the number is written scientific notation as shown below:

If the uncertainty is 100, the value is written as (2.3 0.1) 103 If the uncertainty is 10, the value is written as (2.30 0.01) 103 If the uncertainty is 1, the value is written as (2.300 0.001) 103 1.13 Sometimes, uncertainty is known as error. 1.14 So when a reading is given as 3.8 0.2, the uncertainty is 0.2 or it can also be said, the error is 0.2 2. What causes uncertainty? 2.1 There are two causes for there to be an uncertainty in a reading. The inability of the instrument to obtain more significant figures in the measurement The non uniformity of the quantity that is being measured

2.2 The first is a result of limited sensitivity of the instrument. This is also known as the least count uncertainty. 2.3 For example, the smallest division of a meter rule is 1 mm. That is, the least count is 1 mm. Hence the uncertainty for all measurements made with a meter rule will be 1 mm. 2.4 However, a vernier scale can read up to 0.1 mm. Thus the uncertainty for readings made with a vernier scale will be 0.1 mm 2.5 Similarly the uncertainty when a micrometer is used will be 0.01 mm 2.6 The second cause is a result of random errors. 2.7 If the diameter of a wire is being measured, it is possible that the wire is not perfectly uniform. 2.8 So if the diameter is measured at different points on the wire, different values may be obtained. This is because of the non uniformity of the wire. 2.9 Similarly, if a person measures the time for 10 oscillations of a pendulum, and repeats the reading five times, it is possible that he will get five different readings. 2.10 This is because of the personal error of the experimenter. 2.11 In such a case, it is usual to take the mean value of the several readings as the measured value.

3. Mean value and uncertainty 3.1 When a reading is repeated several times, the mean value is taken as the correct value of the quantity being measured. 3.2 Each of the readings will come with an uncertainty depending on the instrument being used. 3.3 To obtain the uncertainty for the mean value the following procedure is used. 3.4 First the range of the several readings is obtained. Range is the largest value minus the smallest value. 3.5 Then the half range is computed. Half range is half of the range. For example, if the following readings are obtained for the period of a pendulum: 1.57 0.01 s 1.52 0.01 s 1.53 0.01 s 1.55 0.01 s 1.58 0.01 s The mean value is 1.55 s The range = maximum value minimum value = 1.58 1.52 = 0.06 Half range is 0.06 2 = 0.03 3.6 Now the half range is compared with the uncertainty in each of the individual readings. In this case, the individual readings have an uncertainty of 0.01 whereas the half range is 0.03. The bigger of the two is taken as the uncertainty for the mean value. Therefore in this case, since half range is more than the uncertainty of the individual readings, the half range is taken as the uncertainty for the mean value. Thus the mean value is 1.55 0.03 s 3.7 Another example: Diameter of a glass rod: 1.52 0.01 cm 1.52 0.01 cm 1.53 0.01 cm Mean value = 1.524 cm Half range = (1.53 1.52) = 0.005 Comparison of half range and individual uncertainty shows that the individual uncertainties are bigger. Hence the uncertainty for the mean value is taken to be the same as the individual reading uncertainty. 1.52 0.01 cm 1.53 0.01 cm

4 Hence mean value = 1.524 0.01 cm 3.8 The mean value is rounded up so that the last significant figure has the same place value as the uncertainty. Thus mean value = 1.52 0.01 cm 3.9 If the half range is a two significant figure number, then it is rounded up to one significant figure. For example, largest value = 3.8 smallest value = 3.5 Range = 0.3 Half range is 0.15. This has to be rounded up to 0.2

4. Absolute uncertainty, relative uncertainty, percentage uncertainty 4.1 The quantity written as ( x) is known as the absolute uncertainty. 4.2 For example, in the reading 35.6 0.2, the absolute uncertainty is 0.2. 4.3 Relative uncertainty is the ratio of the absolute uncertainty to the value of the measurement. Example: 156 4

Absolute uncertainty = 4 Value of measurement = 156 Relative uncertainty = 4 = 0.026 156 The relative uncertainty can be given to two or even three significant figures. 4.4 Percentage uncertainty is the relative uncertainty expressed as a percentage. In the previous example, percentage uncertainty is 0.026 100% = 2.6 %

5. Propagation of errors 5.1 During an experiment, we get primary data as well as secondary data. 5.2 Primary data are readings obtained by direct measurement. Secondary data are those obtained by applying the primary data to a formula to obtain derived values. 5.3 For example, the diameter, d, and thickness, t, of a disc are measured as 5.42 0.01 cm and 1.35 0.01 mm

5 These are primary data. 5.4 Using these primary data, the secondary data, volume, V, of the disc, can be obtained using the formula V = d2t 5.5 The uncertainties in the primary data are obtained as discussed in the previous sections. 5.6 The uncertainty in the secondary data is computed using certain rules as described below. 6. Rule for computing uncertainties in secondary data 6.1 Secondary data are obtained from primary data based on certain formulae. 6.2 The types of formulae usually encountered are (i) addition or subtraction: A=B+C A=BC

For such formulae, the absolute uncertainties in the primary data are used for computing the uncertainty in the secondary data. Rule: absolute uncertainty for A = sum of absolute uncertainty for B and C. This applies for both addition and subtraction in the formula. Thus, if A = B + C, B = 12 2 and C = 25 3, A = (12 + 25) (2+3) = 37 5 If A = B C, B = 2.4 0.3 and C = 0.8 0.1, A = (2.4 0.8) (0.3+0.1) = 1.6 0.4 (ii) multiplication or division: A = B C A=B/C For such formulas, the relative (or percentage) uncertainties of the primary data are used for computing the uncertainty in the secondary data. Rule: relative uncertainty for A = sum of relative uncertainty for B and C. This applies for both multiplication and division. Thus if A = B C, B = 1.8 0.2 and C = 45 3

We first obtain the relative error for B and C.

Quantity B C A

value 1.8 45 1.8 45 = 81

absolute uncertainty 0.2 3 x

relative uncertainty 0.2/1.8 = 0.111 3/45 = 0.067 (0.111 + 0.067) = 0.178

Hence the value of A is 81 and its relative error is 0.178 Since relative error is (absolute error/value of reading), i.e. x/81 = 0.178, therefore x = 81 0.178 = 14.1 Therefore the value of A is 81 14.1 The error must be rounded to one significant figure, i.e. 14.1 becomes 10 Thus the value of A is 81 10 The last significant figure in the result must have the same place value as the error. Hence the value of A is rounded to 80 10. The same method is used for a formula involving a division, i.e A = B/C, that is, the relative error of A is equal to the sum of the relative errors of B and C (not difference).

Example: density = mass/volume. For a sphere, =

m = m . 3 4/3 r 4/3 r r r

Relative error in = (relative error in m) + (rel. error in r) + (rel. error in r) + (rel. error in r) = (relative error in m) + 3(relative error in r) In general, if a formula involves the powers of a measured quantity, the resultant relative error is the power multiplied by the relative error in the measured quantity. For example, let us say a quantity x is measured with a relative error of 0.02. If a formula is given as P = x2, the relative error in P is 2 0.02 = 0.04 If a formula is given as P = x3, the relative error in P is 3 0.02 = 0.06 If a formula is given as P = x1/2, the relative error in P is 0.02 = 0.01