# EXPERIMENT 3: Experimental Errors and Uncertainty

EXPERIMENT 3:

Experimental Errors and Uncertainty

Read the entire experiment and organize time, materials, and work space before beginning.
Remember to review the safety sections and wear goggles when appropriate.

Objective: To gain an understanding of experimental errors and uncertainty.
Materials: Student Provides: Pen and pencils
Paper, plain and graph
From LabPaq: No supplies are required for this experiment.

Discussion and Review: 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 gtrueh 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.
gError analysish 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.
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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 grepeatabilityh or greproducibilityh. A measurement
that is highly reproducible tends to give values which are very close to each other.
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 = ƒÎ 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.
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Systematic Errors: Systematic errors are errors that affect the accuracy of a
measurement. Systematic errors are gone-sidedh 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 gparallax errorh, which results from
the user reading an instrument at an angle resulting in a reading which is consistently
high or consistently low.
Random Errors: Random errors are errors that affect the precision of a measurement.
Random errors are gtwo-sidedh 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.
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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 }. of the smallest unit of the instrument. For example, a digital voltmeter
reads 1.493 volts; the precision of the voltage measurement is }. 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
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 <x> 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 ƒÐx and is given by the formula:
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Equation 4
The standard deviation is sometimes referred to as the gmean square deviation.h 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
measurements that have
only random errors the
standard deviation
shows that 68% of the
measured values are within ƒÐx from the mean, 95% are within 2ƒÐx from the mean, and
99% are within 3ƒÐx from the mean.
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 <x> of the
measurements. Second, the variation of the measurements is reported. The variation in
the measurements is usually reported by the standard deviation ƒÐx 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>+ ƒÐx to <x> – ƒÐx. Any experimental measurement should then
be reported in the following form:
x = <x> } ƒÐx
Example: Consider Table 1 below that lists 30 measurements of the mass m of a
sample of some unknown material.
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Table 1: Measured Mass (kg) of Unknown
We can represent this data on a type of bar chart called a histogram (Figure 3), which
shows the number of measured values which lie in a range of mass values with the
given midpoint.
Figure 3: Mass of Unknown Sample
For the 30 mass measurements the mean mass is given by:
<m> = 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
ƒÐm from the mean.
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The measured mass of the unknown sample is then reported as:
m = 1.10} 0.05 kg
PROCEDURES: 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 <y> versus t (plot t on the abscissa, i.e., x-axis).
3. Plot a graph <y> 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 = . 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 . g.
5. Compute the percent error of the experimental value of g determined from the graph
in part d. (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) <y> ƒÐ 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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