© Hands-On Labs, Inc. LabPaq PK-1 53 Experimental Errors and Uncertainty Experiment Summary: Students will have the opportunity to learn about accuracy, precision, and types and sources of experimental error. They will learn the importance of significant figures as well as how to calculate percent error, percent difference, and standard and mean deviation. Students will use a free fall experiment to learn how to report measurement results, graph data, determine the slope of a line, and calculate gravitational force and percent error. Peter Jeschofnig, Ph.D. Version 09.1.01 Review the safety materials and wear goggles when working with chemicals. Read the entire exercise before you begin. Take time to organize the materials you will need and set aside a safe work space in which to complete the exercise. Objectives © Hands-On Labs, Inc. LabPaq PK-1 54 ! To gain an understanding of experimental errors and uncertainty. Materials © Hands-On Labs, Inc. LabPaq PK-1 55 Materials From: Label or Box/Bag: Qty Item Description: Student Provides 1 Pen and pencils 1 Paper, plain and graph 1 Computer and spreadsheet program Discussion and Review © Hands-On Labs, Inc. LabPaq PK-1 56 No physical quantity can be measured with perfect certainty; there are always errors in any measurement. This means that if we measure some quantity and then repeat the measurement we will almost certainly measure a different value the second time. How then can we know the “true” value of a physical quantity? The short answer is that we cannot. However, as we take greater care in our measurements and apply ever more refined experimental methods we can reduce the errors and thereby gain greater confidence that our measurements approximate ever more closely the true value. “Error analysis” is the study of uncertainties in physical measurements. A complete description of error analysis would require much more time and space than we have in this course. However, by taking the time to learn some basic principles of error analysis we can: ! Understand how to measure experimental error; ! Understand the types and sources of experimental errors; ! Clearly and correctly report measurements and the uncertainties in measurements; and ! Design experimental methods and techniques plus improve our measurement skills to reduce experimental errors. Two excellent references on error analysis are: ! John R. Taylor, An Introduction to Error Analysis: The Study of Uncertainties in Physical Measurements, 2d Edition, University Science Books, 1997; and ! Philip R. Bevington and D. Keith Robinson, Data Reduction and Error Analysis for the Physical Sciences, 2d Edition, WCB/McGraw-Hill, 1992. Accuracy and Precision Experimental error is the difference between a measurement and the true value or between two measured values. Experimental error itself is measured by its accuracy and precision. Accuracy measures how close a measured value is to the true value or accepted value. Since a true or accepted value for a physical quantity may be unknown, it is sometimes not possible to determine the accuracy of a measurement. Precision measures how closely two or more measurements agree with each other. Precision is sometimes referred to as “repeatability” or “reproducibility”. A measurement that is highly reproducible tends to give values which are very close to each other. © Hands-On Labs, Inc. LabPaq PK-1 57 Figure 1 defines accuracy and precision with an analogy of the grouping of arrows in a target. Figure 1: Accuracy vs. Precision Types and Sources of Experimental Errors When scientists refer to experimental errors they are not referring to what are commonly called mistakes, blunders, or miscalculations or sometimes illegitimate, human or personal errors. Personal errors can result from measuring a width when the length should have been measured, or measuring the voltage across the wrong portion of an electrical circuit, or misreading the scale on an instrument, or forgetting to divide the diameter by 2 before calculating the area of a circle with the formula A = ! r2. Such errors are certainly significant but they can be eliminated by performing the experiment again correctly the next time. On the other hand, experimental errors are inherent in the measurement process. They cannot be eliminated simply by repeating the experiment, no matter how carefully. There are two types of experimental errors: systematic errors and random errors. Systematic Errors: Systematic errors are errors that affect the accuracy of a measurement. Systematic errors are “one-sided” errors because, in the absence of other types of errors, repeated measurements yield results that differ from the true or accepted value by the same amount. The accuracy of measurements subject to systematic errors cannot be improved by repeating those measurements. Systematic errors cannot easily be analyzed by statistical analysis. Systematic errors can be difficult to detect, and once detected they can only be reduced by refining the measurement method or technique. Common sources of systematic errors are faulty calibration of measuring instruments, poorly maintained instruments, or faulty reading of instruments by the user. A common form of this last source of systematic error is called “parallax error”, which results from the user reading an instrument at an angle resulting in a reading which is consistently high or consistently low. © Hands-On Labs, Inc. LabPaq PK-1 58 Random Errors: Random errors are errors that affect the precision of a measurement. Random errors are “two-sided” errors because, in the absence of other types of errors, repeated measurements yield results that fluctuate above and below the true or accepted value. Measurements subject to random errors differ from each other due to random, unpredictable variations in the measurement process. The precision of measurements subject to random errors can be improved by repeating those measurements. Random errors are easily analyzed by statistical analysis. Random errors can be detected and reduced by repeating the measurement or by refining the measurement method or technique. Common sources of random errors are problems estimating a quantity that lies between the graduations (the measurement lines) on an instrument and the inability to read an instrument because the reading fluctuates during the measurement. Calculating Experimental Error When a scientist reports the results of an experiment the report must describe the accuracy and precision of the experimental measurements. Some common ways to describe accuracy and precision are described below. Significant Figures: The least significant digit in a measurement depends on the smallest unit that can be measured using the measuring instrument. The precision of a measurement can then be estimated by the number of significant digits with which the measurement is reported. In general, any measurement is reported to a precision equal to 1/10 of the smallest graduation on the measuring instrument, and the precision of the measurement is said to be 1/10 of the smallest graduation. For example, a measurement of length using a meter tape with 1-mm graduations will be reported with a precision of ±0.1 mm. A measurement of volume using a graduated cylinder with 1 mL graduations will be reported with a precision of ±0.1 mL. Digital instruments are treated differently. Unless the instrument manufacturer indicates otherwise, the precision of measurement made with digital instruments are reported with a precision of ±½ of the smallest unit of the instrument. For example, a digital voltmeter reads 1.493 volts; the precision of the voltage measurement is ±½ of 0.001 volts or ±0.0005 volt. Percent Error: Percent error measures the accuracy of a measurement by the difference between a measured or experimental value E and a true or accepted value A. The percent error is calculated from the following equation: Equation 1 % Error = | E – A| x 100% A © Hands-On Labs, Inc. LabPaq PK-1 59 Percent Difference: Percent difference measures precision of two measurements by the difference between the measured or experimental values E1 and E2 expressed as a fraction of the average of the two values. The equation used to calculate the percent difference is: Equation 2 Mean and Standard Deviation: When a measurement is repeated several times we see the measured values are grouped around some central value. This grouping or distribution can be described with two numbers: the mean, which measures the central value and the standard deviation, which describes the spread or deviation of the measured values about the mean. For a set of N measured values for some quantity x, the mean of x is represented by the symbol and is calculated by the following formula: Equation 3 Where xi is the i-th measured value of x. The mean is simply the sum of the measured values divided by the number of measured values. The standard deviation of the measured values is represented by the symbol “x and is given by the formula: Equation 4 The standard deviation is sometimes referred to as the “mean square deviation.” It measures how widely spread the measured values are on either side of the mean. The meaning of the standard deviation can be seen from the figure on the right. This is a plot of data with a mean of 0.5. As shown in this graph, the larger the standard deviation, the more widely spread the data is about the mean. For measurements that have only random errors the standard deviation shows that 68% of the measured values are within “x from the mean, 95% are within 2″x from the mean, and 99% are within 3″x from the mean. © Hands-On Labs, Inc. LabPaq PK-1 60 Reporting the Results of an Experimental Measurement When a scientist reports the result of an experimental measurement of a quantity x, that result is reported with two parts. First, the best estimate of the measurement is reported. The best estimate of a set of measurement is usually reported as the mean of the measurements. Second, the variation of the measurements is reported. The variation in the measurements is usually reported by the standard deviation “x of the measurements. The measured quantity is then known to have a best estimate equal to the average, but it may also vary from + “x to – “x. Any experimental measurement should then be reported in the following form: x = ” #x Example: Consider Table 1 below that lists 30 measurements of the mass m of a sample of some unknown material. Table 1: Measured Mass (kg) of Unknown We can represent this data on a type of bar chart called a histogram (Figure 2), which shows the number of measured values which lie in a range of mass values with the given midpoint. © Hands-On Labs, Inc. LabPaq PK-1 61 Figure 2: Mass of Unknown Sample For the 30 mass measurements the mean mass is given by: = 1/30 (33.04 kg) = 1.10 kg We see from the histogram that the data does appear to be centered on a mass value of 1.10 kg. The standard deviation is given by: We also see from the histogram that the data does, indeed, appear to be spread about the mean of 1.10 kg so that approximately 70% (= 20/30×100) of the values are within “m from the mean. The measured mass of the unknown sample is then reported as: m = 1.10± 0.05 kg PROCEDURE: The data table that follows shows data taken in a free-fall experiment. Measurements were made of the distance of fall (Y) at each of the four precisely measured times. From this data perform the following: 1. Complete the table. 2. Plot a graph versus t (plot t on the abscissa, i.e., x-axis). © Hands-On Labs, Inc. LabPaq PK-1 62 3. Plot a graph versus t2 (plot t2 on the abscissa, i.e., x-axis). The equation of motion for an object in free fall starting from rest is y = ½ gt2, where g is the acceleration due to gravity. This is the equation of a parabola, which has the general form y = ax2. 4. Determine the slope of the line and compute an experimental value of g from the slope value. Remember, the slope of this graph represents ½ g. 5. Compute the percent error of the experimental value of g determined from the graph in step 4. (Accepted value of g = 9.8 m/s2) 6. Use a spreadsheet to perform the calculations and plot the graphs indicated. Time, t (s) Dist. y1 (m) Dist. y2 (m) Dist. y3 (m) Dist. y4 (m) Dist. y5 (m) ” t2 0 0 0 0 0 0 0.5 1.0 1.4 1.1 1.4 1.5 0.75 2.6 3.2 2.8 2.5 3.1 1.0 4.8 4.4 5.1 4.7 4.8 1.25 8.2 7.9 7.5 8.1 7.4

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