Physics is a quantitative science, based on measurement of physical quantities.  Certain physical quantities have been chosen as fundamental or base quantities (such as length, mass, time, electric current, thermodynamic temperature, amount of substance, and luminous intensity). A physical quantity is completely specified if it has:

Magnitude of a Physical Quantity = Numerical value *Unit

There are also physical quantities which are not even completely specified even by magnitude, unit, and direction. These physical quantities are called Tensors. Example- Moment Of Inertia


UNIT: Each base quantity is defined in terms of a certain basic, arbitrarily chosen but properly standardised reference standard called unit (such as metre, kilogram, second, ampere, kelvin, mole and candela). 

FUNDAMENTAL OR BASE UNIT: The units for the fundamental or base quantities are called fundamental or base units. Example-meter, hour etc.

DERIVED UNITS:Other physical quantities, derived from the base quantities, can be expressed as a combination of the base units and are called derived units. Example- Newton, Watt etc.

SYSTEM OF UNITS:A complete set of units, both fundamental and derived, is called a system of units. Example- CGS system, MKS system, FPS system.


  • The measurement system used at present is Système Internationale d’ Unites (French for International System of Units), abbreviated as SI.
  • The International System of Units (SI) based on seven base units is at present internationally accepted unit system and is widely used throughout the world.
  • The SI units are used in all physical measurements, for both the base quantities and the derived quantities obtained from them.  Certain derived units are expressed by means of SI units with special names (such as joule, newton, watt, etc.).
  • The SI units have well defined and internationally accepted unit symbols (such as m for metre, kg for kilogram, s for second, A for ampere, N for newton etc.)
  • There are seven Basic Units: Length, Mass, Time, Electric Current, Temperature, Amount of Substance, and Luminous Intensity.
  • Besides the seven base units, there are two more units that are defined for :

(a) Plane angle “d θ “as the ratio of length of arc ds to the radius r

(dθ =ds/dr)

(b) Solid angle “dΩ” as the ratio of the intercepted area dA of the spherical surface, described about the apex O as the centre, to the square of its radius r   (dΩ=dA/r^2 )

  • The unit for plane angle is radian with the symbol rad and the unit for the solid angle is steradian with the symbol sr. Both these are dimensionless quantities.

Seven Fundamental Units and Their Definition:


  • We already know some direct methods of measuring length such as ruler, Vernier callipers etc.
  • A metre scale is used for lengths from 10-3 m to 102 m.
  • A Vernier callipers is used for lengths to an accuracy of 10-4 m.
  •  A screw gauge and a spherometer can be used to measure lengths as less as to 10-5 m.

 To measure lengths beyond these ranges, we make use of some special indirect methods.

Measurement Of Large Distance :

The method we use for measuring large distances such as distance of stars from earth is called Parallax Method.

What is Parallax?

  • Parallax is the effect whereby the position or direction of an object appears to differ when viewed from different positions.
  • Example: When we hold a pencil against some specific point on the background, and look through one of our left eye (closing right eye) and again through our right eye, we notice that the positions of pencils with respect to the background are different.

This is called Parallax and the distance between the two points of observation is called Basis.

To measure the distance D of a faraway planet S by the parallax method, it is observed from two different positions (observatories) A and B on the  Earth,  separated  by distance AB = b at the same time as shown in Fig. 2.2

Parallactic Angle :

  • It is the angle made between the great circle passing through between the celestial object and zenith, and the hour of object.

The ∠ASB in Fig. 2.2 represented by symbol θ is called the parallax angle or parallactic angle.

As the planet is very far away,

b/D<< 1,  and therefore, θ is very small

By approximation: AB as an arc of length b of a circle with centre at S and the distance D as the radius AS = BS  ,AB = b = D θ where θ is in radians.

D= b/ θ

If d is the diameter of the planet and α the angular size of the planet (the angle subtended by d at the earth), then

α = d/D

α (Angular Size of Planet)= the angle between the two directions when two diametrically opposite points of the planet are viewed through the telescope & d = Diameter of the planet

Estimation of Very Small Distances: Size of a Molecule

To measure a very small size, like that of a molecule (   m to    m), Electron Microscopes are used. These are controlled by electric and magnetic fields.

  • Electron microscopes have a resolution of 0.6 Å . They can almost resolve atoms and molecules in a material.
  • In recent times, tunnelling microscopy has been developed in which again the limit of resolution is better than an angstrom. It is possible to estimate the sizes of molecules.

Estimating Size of Oleic Acid:

Oleic acid is a soapy liquid with large molecular size of the order of    m. The idea is to first form mono-molecular layer of oleic acid on water surface.

  • 1    of oleic acid in alcohol is dissolved to make a solution of 20 cm3.
  • 1  of this solution is taken and diluted to 20 cm3, using alcohol.
  • So, the concentration of the solution is equal to 1/(20*20*20)cm3 of oleic acid/cm3 of solution.
  • Some lycopodium powder is sprinkled on the surface of water in a large trough and one drop of this solution s put in the water.
  • The oleic acid drop spreads into a thin, large and roughly circular film of molecular thickness on water surface.  The diameter of the thin film is measured quickly to get its area A.
  •  Suppose we have dropped n drops in the water. Initially, we determine the approximate volume of each drop (V cm3).

                          Volume of n drops of solution   = nV cm3

                            Amount of oleic acid in this solution

                                          =  nV(1/(20*20))cm3

This solution of oleic acid spreads very fast on the surface of water and forms a very thin layer of thickness t

Thickness = (Volume of the film/Area of the film)                              

t = nV/(20*20) cm

If we assume that the film has mono-molecular thickness, then this becomes the size or diameter of a molecule of oleic acid. The value of this thickness comes out to be of the order of 10-9 m

Range of Lengths:

  • 1 fermi = 1 f = 10-15 m
  • 1 angstrom = 1 Å = 10-10 m
  • 1 astronomical unit = 1 AU (average distance    of the Sun from the Earth) = 1.496 × 1011 m
  • 1 light year = 1 ly= 9.46 × 1015 m (distance   that light travels with velocity of   3 × 108 m s-1 in 1 year)
  • 1 parsec = 3.08 × 1016 m (Parsec is the distance at which average radius of earth’s orbit subtends an angle of 1 arc second)


Mass is a basic property of matter.  It does not depend on the temperature, pressure or location of the object in space.

The SI unit of mass is kilogram (kg).

But for atoms and molecules unified atomic mass (u) is used.

1 unified atomic mass unit = 1u    = (1/12) of the mass of an atom of carbon-12 isotope, including the mass of electrons = = 1.66 × 10-27 kg

Apart from using balances for normal weights, mass of planets are measured using gravitational method and mass spectrograph (radius of the trajectory is proportional to the mass of a charged particle moving in uniform  electric and magnetic field) is used for measurement of small masses of atomic / subatomic particles.

Range of Masses:


Time is measured using a clock. The atomic standard of time is used now.

  • Atomic standard of time is based on the periodic vibrations produced in a caesium atom.
  • This is the basis of the caesium clock, sometimes called atomic clock, used in the national standards.
  • In the caesium atomic clock, the second is taken as the time needed for 9,192,631,770 vibrations of the radiation corresponding to the transition between the two hyperfine levels of the ground state of cesium-133 atom.
  • The vibrations of the caesium atom regulate the rate of this caesium atomic clock just as the vibrations of a balance wheel regulate an ordinary wristwatch or the vibrations of a small quartz crystal regulate a quartz wristwatch.
  • The caesium atomic clocks are very accurate. In principle they provide portable standard.  The national standard of time interval ‘second’ as well as the frequency is maintained through four caesium atomic clocks.
  •   A caesium atomic clock is used at the National Physical Laboratory (NPL), New Delhi to maintain the Indian standard of time.

The efficient caesium atomic clocks are so accurate that they impart the uncertainty in time realisation as ± 1 × 10-15, i.e. 1 part in 1015.  This implies that the uncertainty gained over time by such a device is less than 1 part in 1015; they lose or gain no more than 32 µs in one year.

Range & Order of Time Intervals:


Measurement is the foundation of all experimental science and technology.

What is Precision?

Precision tells us to what resolution or limit a quantity is measured.

What is Accuracy?

 Accuracy of a measurement is a measure of how close the measured value is to the true value of the quantity.

Example: Suppose the true value of a certain length is near 3.678 cm. In one experiment, using a measuring instrument of resolution 0.1 cm, the measured value is found to be 3.5 cm, while in another experiment using a measuring device of greater resolution, say 0.01 cm, and the length is determined to be 3.38 cm. The first measurement has more accuracy (because it is closer to the true value) but less precision (its resolution is only 0.1 cm), while the second measurement is less accurate but more precise.

What is Error?

 The result of every measurement by any measuring instrument contains some uncertainty. This uncertainty is called error.

Systematic errors:

 The systematic errors are those errors that tend to be in one direction, either positive or negative. Some of the sources of systematic errors are:

  • Instrumental errors arise from the errors due to imperfect design or calibration of the measuring instrument, zero error in the instrument, etc. Example: In a Vernier callipers the zero mark of Vernier scale may not coincide with the zero mark of the main scale.
  • Imperfection in experimental technique or procedure: To determine the temperature of a human body, a thermometer placed under the armpit will always give a temperature lower than the actual value of the body temperature. Other external conditions (such as changes in temperature, humidity, wind velocity, etc.) during the experiment may systematically affect the measurement.
  • Personal errors arise due to an individual’s bias, lack of proper setting of the apparatus or individual’s carelessness in taking observations without observing proper precautions, etc.

Random Errors:

The random errors are those errors, which occur irregularly and hence are random with respect to sign and size. These can arise due to random and unpredictable fluctuations in experimental conditions (e.g. unpredictable fluctuations in temperature, voltage supply, mechanical vibrations of experimental set-ups, etc.), personal (unbiased) errors by the observer taking readings, etc.

Least count error:

  • The smallest value that can be measured by the measuring instrument is called its least count.
  • The least count error is the error associated with the resolution of the instrument.
  • Least count error belongs to the category of random errors but within a limited size; it occurs with both systematic and random errors.
  • For example, a Vernier callipers has the least count as 0.01cm; a spherometer may have a least count of 0.001 cm.

Absolute Error:

The magnitude of the difference between the individual measurement and the true value of the quantity is called the absolute error of the measurement.

      This is denoted by |∆a|.

Mathematical Formulation :

Suppose the values obtained in several measurements are a1, a2, a3…., an.  The arithmetic mean of these values is taken as the best possible value of the quantity under the given conditions of measurement as:

amean = (a1+a2+a3+…+an ) / n

In absence of any other method of knowing true value, we considered arithmetic mean as the true value. Then the errors in the individual measurement values from the true value, are

∆a1  = a1 – amean, ∆a2  = a2 – amean,

∆an = an – amean

The ∆a calculated above may be positive in certain cases and negative in some other cases. But absolute error |∆a| will always be positive.

The arithmetic mean of all the absolute errors is taken as the final or mean absolute error of the value of the physical quantity a. It is represented by ∆aMEAN.

This implies that any measurement of the physical quantity a lies between (aMEAN+ ∆amean) and (amean− ∆amean).

Relative Error:

The relative error is the ratio of the mean absolute error ∆ amean to the mean value amean of the quantity measured.

Relative error = ∆amean/amean

Percentage error:

The relative error is expressed in per cent, it is called the percentage error.

δa = (∆amean/amean) × 100%

Combination of Errors:

  • Error of a sum or a difference: When two quantities are added or subtracted, the absolute error in the final result is the sum of the absolute errors in the individual quantities.

Suppose two physical quantities A and B have measured values A ± ∆A, B ± ∆B respectively where ∆A and ∆B are their absolute errors.

We wish to find the error ∆Z in the sum Z = A + B.

We have by addition, Z ± ∆Z = (A ± ∆A) + (B ± ∆B).

The maximum possible error in Z ∆Z = ∆A + ∆B

For the difference Z = A – B, we have Z ± ∆ Z = (A ± ∆A) – (B ± ∆B) = (A – B) ± ∆A ± ∆B or, ± ∆Z = ± ∆A ± ∆B

The maximum value of the error ∆Z is again ∆A + ∆B.

  • Error of a product or a quotient: When two quantities are multiplied or divided, the relative error in the result is the sum of the relative errors in the multipliers.

Suppose Z = AB and the measured values of A and B are A ± ∆A and B ± ∆B.

Then Z ± ∆Z = (A ± ∆A) (B ± ∆B) = AB ± B ∆A ± A ∆B ± ∆A ∆B.

Dividing LHS by Z and RHS by AB we have, 1± (∆Z/Z) = 1 ± (∆A/A) ± (∆B/B) ± (∆A/A) (∆B/B).

Since ∆A and ∆B are small, we shall ignore their product.

 Hence the maximum relative error ∆Z/ Z = (∆A/A) + (∆B/B).

  • Error in case of a measured quantity raised to a power: The relative error in a physical quantity raised to the power k is the k times the relative error in the individual quantity.

Suppose Z = A2, Then, ∆Z/Z = (∆A/A) + (∆A/A) = 2 (∆A/A).

Hence, the relative error in A2 is two times the error in A.

 In general, if Z = Ap Bq/Cr

Then, ∆Z/Z = p (∆A/A) + q (∆B/B) + r (∆C/C)


Significant figures are the number of digits in a value, a measurement that contributes to the degree of accuracy of that value.

  • Normally, the reported result of measurement is a number that includes all digits in the number that are known reliably plus the first digit that is uncertain.
  • The reliable digits plus the first uncertain digit are known as significant digits or significant figures.
  • Significant figures indicate, the precision of measurement which depends on the least count of the measuring instrument.

Example: The period of oscillation of a simple pendulum is 1.62 s, the digits 1 and 6 are reliable and certain, while the digit 2 is uncertain. Thus, the measured value has three significant figures.

Rules for determining number of Significant figures:

  • All the non-zero digits are significant.
  • All the zeros between two non-zero digits are significant, no matter where the decimal point is, if at all.
  •  If the number is less than 1, the zero(s) to the left of the first non-zero digit are not significant. [In 0.00 2308, the underlined zeroes are not significant], but to the right are significant.
  • The terminal or trailing zero(s) in a number without a decimal point are not significant.( Thus 123 m = 12300 cm = 123000 mm has three significant figures, the trailing zero(s) being not significant)
  • The trailing zero(s) in a number with a decimal point are significant.    [The numbers 3.500 or 0.06900 have four significant figures each.]

Cautions to remove ambiguity in determining the no. of significant figures:

  • A choice of change of different units does not change the number of significant digits or figures in a measurement.                                   
  • (Suppose, a length is reported as 4.700m=470.0cm=4700mm.In 1st two cases the no. of significant digits are 4 but in 2nd case its 2 only.)
  • Report every measurement in scientific notation (in the power of 10).

Every number is expressed as a × 10b, where ‘a’ is a number between 1 and 10, and b is any positive or negative exponent (or power) of 10.

Number can be expressed approximately as 10b in which the exponent (or power) b of 10 is called order of magnitude of the physical quantity.

(Example: 4.700 m= 4.700*102cm=4.700*103mm, each has 4 significant figure. Since power of 10 are irrelevant)

  • The multiplying or dividing factors which are neither rounded numbers nor numbers representing measured values are exact and have infinite number of significant digits.

Rules for Arithmetic Operations with Significant Figures

  • In multiplication or division, the final result should retain as many significant figures as are there in the original number with the least significant figures.

(Example: Density will have three significant figures. Since the original no. with least significant figure is 3, thus

 Density= 4.237g/ 2.51 cm3 = 1.69 g cm-3)

  • In addition or subtraction, the final result should retain as many decimal places as are there in the number with the least decimal places.            
  •  For example, the sum of the numbers 436.32 g, 227.2 g and 0.301 g by mere arithmetic addition, is 663.821 g.                                                   
  •  But the least precise measurement (227.2 g) is correct to only one decimal place.                                                                                                    
  •  The final result should, therefore, be rounded off to 663.8 g.  Similarly, the difference in length can be expressed as : 0.307 m – 0.304 m = 0.003 m = 3 × 10–3 m.

Rounding off the Uncertain Digits

The result of computation with approximate numbers, which contain more than one uncertain digit, should be rounded off.

  • The rule by convention is that the preceding digit is raised by 1 if the insignificant digit to be dropped (the underlined digit in this case) is more than 5, and is left unchanged if the latter is less than 5.
  • For a number like 2.945, the insignificant digit is 5 then the following rule is applied.

If the preceding digit is even, the insignificant digit is simply dropped and, if it is odd, the preceding digit is raised by 1. Example: 2.935 would be 2.94.

Rules for Determining the Uncertainty in the Results of Arithmetic Calculations

  • Add a lowest uncertainty in the original numbers. Example uncertainty of 4.2 will be ±0.1 and for 4.22 will be ±.01. Calculate these in percentage also.
  • After calculations uncertainties get multiplied/divided/added/subtracted.
  • Round off the decimal place in uncertainty to get final uncertainty result.

Example: If the length and breadth of a thin rectangular sheet are measured, using a metre scale as 16.2 cm and, 10.1 cm respectively, there are three significant figures in each measurement.

It means that the length l may be written as l = 16.2 ± 0.1 cm

= 16.2 cm ±0.6%.

Similarly, the breadth b may be written as b = 10.1 ± 0.1 cm = 10.1 cm ± 1 %

Then, the error of the product of two (or more) experimental values, using the combination of errors rule, will be l b = 163.62 cm2 + 1.6% = 163.62 + 2.6 cm2

This leads us to quote the final result as l b = 164 + 3 cm2 Here 3 cm2 is the uncertainty or error in the estimation of area of rectangular sheet.

  • If a set of experimental data is specified to n significant figures, a result obtained by combining the data will also be valid to n significant figures.

For example, 12.9 g – 7.06 g, both specified to three significant figures, cannot properly be evaluated as 5.84 g but only as 5.8 g, as uncertainties in subtraction or addition combine in a different fashion (smallest number of decimal places rather than the number of significant figures in any of the number added or subtracted).

  • The relative error of a value of number specified to significant figures depends not only on n but also on the number itself.

For example, the accuracy in measurement of mass 1.02 g is ± 0.01 g whereas another measurement 9.89 g is also accurate to ± 0.01 g.

The relative error in 1.02 g is = (± 0.01/1.02) × 100 % = ± 1%

Similarly, the relative error in 9.89 g is = (± 0.01/9.89) × 100 % = ± 0.1 %


The dimensions of a physical quantity are the powers (or exponents) to which the base quantities are raised to represent that quantity.

  • The square brackets [ ] round a quantity means that we are dealing with ‘the dimensions of’ the quantity. In mechanics, all the physical quantities can be written in terms of the dimensions [L], [M] and [T].
  • The dimensions of volume are [L] × [L] × [L] = [L] 3 = [L3]. Since the volume is independent of mass and time, it has zero dimension in mass [M°], zero dimension in time [T°] and three dimensions in length.
  •    Force = mass × acceleration = mass × (length)/(time)2

The dimensions of force are [M] [L]/[T]-2 = [M L T-2 ].

Thus, the force has one dimension in mass, one dimension in length, and –2 dimensions in time. The dimensions in all other base quantities are zero.


The expression which shows how and which of the base quantities represent the dimensions of a physical quantity is called the dimensional formula of the given physical quantity.

  • For example, the dimensional formula of the volume is [M° L3 T°], and that of speed or velocity is [M° L T-1].

An equation obtained by equating a physical quantity with its dimensional formula is called the dimensional equation of the physical quantity.

  • The dimensional equations are the equations, which represent the dimensions of a physical quantity in terms of the base quantities.

 For example, the dimensional equations of volume [V], speed [v], force [F] and mass density [ρ] may be expressed as                            

                              [V] = [M0 L3 T0]       [v] = [M0 L1 T-1]

[F] = [M L T-2]         [ρ] = [M L-3 T0]

The dimensional equation can be obtained from the equation representing the relations between the physical quantities.


  • Only those physical quantities can be added or subtracted which have the same dimensions.
  • Dimensional analysis helps us in deducing certain relations among different physical quantities and checking the derivation, accuracy and dimensional consistency or homogeneity of various mathematical expressions.
  • When magnitudes of two or more physical quantities are multiplied, their units should be treated in the same manner as ordinary algebraic symbols.
  • Physical quantities represented by symbols on both sides of a mathematical equation must have the same dimensions.

Checking the Dimensional Consistency of Equations

  • The principle of homogeneity of dimensions: It states that the dimensions of each terms of a dimensional equation on both sides are same.
  • If an equation fails this consistency test, it is proved wrong, but if it passes, it is not proved right. Thus, a dimensionally correct equation need not be actually an exact (correct) equation, but a dimensionally wrong (incorrect) or inconsistent equation must be wrong

For Example:    x= x0 + v0t + (1/2) t2

The dimensions of each term may be written as      [x] = [L]    &     [x0] = [L]

                 [v0 t] = [L T-1] [T] = [L] [(1/2) a t2] = [L T-2] [T2] = [L]

 Since LHS=RHS, equation is a dimensionally correct equation.

Deducing Relation among the Physical Quantities

The method of dimensions can sometimes be used to deduce relation among the physical quantities.


Consider a simple pendulum, having a bob attached to a string that oscillates under the action of the force of gravity. Suppose that the period of oscillation of the simple pendulum depends on its length (l), mass of the bob (m) and acceleration due to gravity (g). Derive the expression for its time period using method of dimensions.

Ans: The dependence of time period T on the quantities l, g and m as a product may be written as : T = k lx gy mz where k is dimensionless constant and x, y and z are the exponents.

By considering dimensions on both sides, we have

 [L0 M0 T1 ]=[L1 ]x [L1 T-2 ]y [M1 ]z  = Lx+y T-2y Mz

On equating the dimensions on both sides, we have

 x + y = 0; –2y = 1; and z = 0 So that x=1/2, y= -1/2, z=0

T = k l1/2 g-1/2

For the further understanding of concepts related to Error, Significant Figures, Dimesional Analysis and Measurements of physical quantities please refer to the pdf in which these are discussed in detail.

Categories: General


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