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Calculating Uncertainties A Quick Guide

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What Is An Uncertainty? No measuring instrument (be it a plastic ruler or the world’s most accurate thermometer) is perfectly accurate When you make any measurement, there always is some uncertainty as to the exact value. For example: The ruler says this red line is 3.5 cm long Due to imperfections in the design and manufacturing of the ruler, I can’t be sure that it is exactly 3.500 cm, just something close to that, perhaps 3.492. or 3.521

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Measuring Uncertainties Most equipment manufacturers know the level of uncertainty in their instruments, and will tell you. For example: The instruction manual that came with my ruler tells me it is accurate to +/- 0.05 cm. This means my 3.5 cm line is actually anywhere between 3.45 and 3.55 cm long Importantly: we have no way of knowing where in this range the actual length is, unless we use a more accurate ruler

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How Big Are The Uncertainties? Most good apparatus will have the uncertainty written on it, so make a note of it. Where this is not the case, use half the smallest division: For example: if a balance can measure to two decimal places, the uncertainty would by +/- 0.005 g When manually measuring time, you should round to the nearest whole second, and decide the uncertainty based on the nature of your measurement.

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Absolute and Relative Uncertainty Absolute uncertainty is the actual size of the uncertainty in the units used to measure it. This is what the previous slide referred to In our ruler example, the absolute uncertainty is +/- 0.05 cm To minimise absolute uncertainty, you should use the most accurate equipment possible. This is the size of the uncertainty relative to the value measured, and is usually expressed as a percentage Relative uncertainty can be calculated by dividing the absolute uncertainty by the measured value and multiplying by 100 In our ruler example, the relative uncertainty is 0.05 / 3.5 x 100 = 1.4% To minimise relative uncertainty, you should aim to make bigger measurements

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How do uncertainties affect my calculations? If the numbers you are putting into a calculation are uncertain, the result of the calculation will be too You need to be able to calculate the degree of uncertainty The Golden Rules: When adding/subtracting: add the absolute uncertainty When multiplying/dividing: add the relative uncertainty

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Example: A Titration In a titration, the initial reading on my burette was 0.0 cm 3, and the final reading was 15.7 cm 3. The burette is accurate to +/- 0.05 cm 3. What are the most and least amounts of liquid I could have added? The volume of liquid added is the final reading minus the initial reading, so we need to add absolute uncertainty in each reading. Absolute uncertainty = 0.05 + 0.05 = 0.10 cm 3 Most amount = 15.7 + 0.10 = 15.8 cm 3 Least amount = 15.7 - 0.10 = 15.6 cm 3

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Example 2: A rate of reaction In an experiment on the rate of a reaction, a student timed how long it would take to produce 100 cm 3 of gas, at a variety of different temperatures. At 30 O C, it took 27.67 seconds. The gas syringe used was accurate to +/- 0.25 cm 3. What is the average rate of reaction, and what is the relative uncertainty in this value? Rate = volume / time = 100 / 27 = 3.70 cm 3 s -1 Time is rounded to the nearest whole second as human reaction times do not allow for 2 decimal places of accuracy Absolute uncertainty of volume: +/- 0.25 cm 3 Absolute uncertainty of time: +/- 0.5s This is an approximation, taking into account reaction time and the difficulty of pressing stop exactly at 100 cm 3. You should make similar approximations whenever you are manually recording time, and should write a short sentence to justify them

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Example 2 continued Relative uncertainty of volume % Uncertainty = (absolute uncertainty / measured value) x 100 = 0.25/100 x 100 = 0.25% Relative uncertainty of time % Uncertainty = (0.5 / 27) x 100 = 0.25/100 x 100 = 1.85% Relative uncertainty of rate % Uncertainty (rate) = % uncertainty (volume) + % uncertainty (time) = 0.25 + 1.85 = 2.10% The relative uncertainties were added as the rate calculation required a division calculation

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A Note On Averages With the previous example, if I did three repeat titrations all accurate to +/- 0.10 cm 3, as follows: Average = (15.7 + 15.4 + 16.0) / 3 = 15.7 cm 3 (+/- 0.10) The uncertainty of the average is still +/- 0.10 When you add up the values, the uncertainty would increase to +/- 0.30 cm 3 However, when you divide by 3 to determine the average, the uncertainty also gets divided by 3, so it returns to +/- 0.10 TrialVolume added (cm 3 ) +/- 0.10 cm 3 115.7 215.4 316.0

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Some Practice Questions 1. With a stopwatch you time that it takes a friend 8.5 s (+/- 0.25 s, human reaction time) to run 50 metres (+/- 0.50 m). If speed = distance / time: a. How fast was the friend running? b. What is the relative error in the speed? c. What are the fastest and slowest possible speeds? 2. Whilst doing an experiment on density, you find that a lump of material with a mass of 1.22 g (+/- 0.0010g) has a volume of 0.65 cm 3 (+/- 0.05 cm 3 ). If density = mass / volume: a. What is the density of the material? b. What is the relative error in the density? c. What are the highest and lowest possible values for the density? d. How could you improve the experiment to reduce the uncertainty in the result? 3. A candle was burnt and the energy it produced measured. The initial mass of the candle was 25.1 g (+/- 0.05) grams and the final mass was 22.7 g (+/- 0.05 g). It was found the candle released 80.2 kJ energy (+/- 1.5 kJ). a. Calculate the energy released per gram of wax burnt (energy released/mass of candle burnt). b. Calculate the absolute and relative error in the mass of candle wax burnt. c. Calculate the relative error in the energy released per gram. d. Calculate the highest and lowest possible values for energy released per gram. Answers: Q1 a) 5.67 m/s, b) 3.9%, c) max: 6.13 m/s, min: 5.67 m/s; Q2 a) 1.88 g/cm 3, b) 7.8%, c) max: 2.03 g/cm 3, min: 1.73 g/cm 3, d) measure volume more accurately, and/or use a bigger lump to reduce relative error in volume; Q3 a) 33.4 kJ/g, b) Abs: +/- 0.10 g, Rel: +/- 4.2%, c) +/- 6.0%, d) max: 75.4 kJ/g, min: 85.0 kJ/g

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