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Estimating uncertainty

Any scientific measurement has an element of uncertainty. This uncertainty

may arise from the limitations of the measuring instrument, random errors

that effect the measurement being made or systematic errors in the procedure

being used.

Limitations of measuring instruments The sensitivity of a measuring

instrument is determined by the smallest division on its scale. For example a

balance that weighs down to 1 gram will have an uncertainty of + or- 0.5 grams

(Explanation A reading of 223grams means that the mass being measured has

a mass which is closer to 223 grams than it is to 224 grams or 222grams. This

means that the mass could have a value between 222.5 grams and 233.5

grams. This would be written as 223+or 0.5 grams.)

Similarly, a voltmeter reading down to 0.01 volts would have an uncertainty of

0.005 volts and a thermometer reading down to 1

0

C would have an

uncertainty of 0.5

0

C.

Random uncertainty This results from small errors that can arise from a wide

variety of causes. Examples of factors that could lead to random errors might

be small convection currents in the laboratory leading to variations in the

background temperature, fluctuations in the pressure of the gas supply,

fluctuations in the mains voltage and unwanted vibrations. If these errors are

truly random and the measurement is repeated a sufficient number of times,

the values obtained for the measurement will lie on a normal distribution

curve. If n readings have been taken and the standard deviation is the

standard error is equal to /n. This can be taken as the uncertainty due to

random errors. By repeating the measurement a large number of times the

standard error can be reduced

Systematic errors result from poor experimental technique or from a flaw in

the experimental design. For example, using a balance that has not been

zeroed correctly or reading the level of a liquid in a measuring cylinder from

the wrong position will give rise to systematic errors.

Combining Uncertainties If two measurements are made and then added

together the uncertainty in the sum of the measurements is the sum of the

uncertainties in the individual measurements. If one measurement is

subtracted from the other the combined uncertainty is also the sum of the

individual uncertainties.

Percentage uncertainty = Uncertainty/ measured value multiplied by 100

Worked example 1 A sprinters time for the 200 metres is measured on a stop

watch reading down to 0.01seconds. If her time is 25 seconds, calculate the

percentage uncertainty in her time.

Uncertainty in the measurement of her time is 0.01/2 = 0.005

The percentage uncertainty =(0.005/25) x100% = 0.02%

Worked example 2 5.6+/- 0.05 grams of iron filings are added to 3.2+/-

0.05grams of sulphur. Calculate the uncertainty in the mass of the mixture.

Total mass of the mixture =5.6 + 3.2 =8.8 grams

Total uncertainty =0.05+0.05 =0.1grams

The percentage uncertainty in the mass = (0.1/8.8) x100 =1.14%

Worked Example 3 In an experiment on solubility the mass of the evaporating

dish was 12.5 +/- 0.005grams and the mass of the evaporating dish and the

solute was 15.2 +/- 0.05 grams. Calculate the uncertainty and the percentage

uncertainty in the mass of the solute.

Mass of solute =15.2-12.5=2.7 grams

The uncertainty in the mass =0.5=0.05=0.1grams

The percentage uncertainty=(0.1/2.7) x100 =3.7%

Note that if we are dealing with the difference between two quantities the

percentage uncertainty in the difference can be very large even if the

uncertainties in the measurement of the individual quantities are small.

Combining percentage uncertainties When quantities are combined the

percentage uncertainty will increase according to the following rules.

If z = xy the percentage uncertainty in z is equal to the percentage uncertainty

in x + the percentage uncertainty in y

If z=x/y the percentage uncertainty in z is equal to the percentage uncertainty

in x + the percentage uncertainty in y

If y=x

2

the percentage uncertainty in y is twice the percentage uncertainty in x

In general ,if y=x

n

the percentage uncertainty in yis n times the percentage

uncertainty in x.

Worked examples

4E =VIt is the formula for calculating electrical energy supplied in Joules

when Vis the voltage in volts, I is the current in amps and t is the time for

which the current flows in seconds.

If V=5=+/- 0.005 volts, I= 0.2 =/- 0.005 amps and t = 10 =/- 0.1 seconds

calculate the percentage error in E.

%age error in V = (0.005/5) x100 =0.1%

%age error in I = (0.005/0.2)x100 =2.5%

% error in t =(0.1/10)x100 = 1%

The percentage error in E =0.1% + 2.5% + 1% =3.6%

5) If z=x

2

y

3

with a percentage error of 2% in x and 3% in y work out the

percentage error in z

Percentage error in x

2

=2x2%=4%

Percentage error in y

3

=3x3%= 9%

Percentage error in z= 4% +9% = 13%

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