Measuring Things

Measuring Things

Physics is based on measurement. We discover physics by learning how to measure the quantities that are involved in physics. Among these  quantities are length, time, mass, temperature, pressure, and electric current.

We measure each physical quantity in its own units, by comparison with a
standard. The unit is a unique name we assign to measures of that quantity for example, meter (or m) for the quantity length. The standard corresponds to exactly 1.0 unit of the quantity. As you will see, the standard for length, which corresponds to exactly 1.0 m is the distance traveled by light in a vacuum during a certain fraction of a second. We can define a unit and its standard in any way we care to. However, the important thing is to do so in such a way that scientists around the world will agree that our definitions are both sensible and practical.

Once we have set up a standard, say, for length, we must work out procedures by which any length whatever, be it the radius of a hydrogen atom, the wheelbase of a skateboard, or the distance to a star, can be expressed in terms of the standard. Rulers, which approximate our length standard, give us one such procedure for measuring length. However, many of our comparisons must be indirect. You cannot use a ruler, for example, to measure the radius of an atom or the distance to a star.

There are so many physical quantities that it is a problem to organize them.
Fortunately, they are not all independent; for example, speed is the ratio of a length to a time. Thus, what we do is pick: out-by international agreement a small number of physical quantities, such as length and time, and assign standards to them alone. We then define all other physical quantities in terms of these base quantities and their standards (called base standards). Speed, for example, is defined in terms of the base quantities length and time and the associated base standards.

Base standards must be both accessible and invariable. If we define the length standard as the distance between one’s nose and the index finger on an outstretched arm, we certainly have an accessible standard-but it will, of course, vary from person to person. The demand for precision in science and engineering pushes us to aim first for invariability. We then exert great effort to make duplicates of the base standards that are accessible to those who need them.

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