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1. Basic Quantities

In everyday life, we tend to measure a lot of quantities such as density, time,

length, area, volume, velocity, acceleration, but when it comes to analyse

which are the basic quantities (that is quantities which do not depend on other

quantities), we find that there are three basic quantities which are mass, time

and length.

Until about the year 1800, people in various countries used to measure

quantities in different ways. So much so, that in England people used to

measure length in inches while in Europe this measurement used to be done

in centimetres. In 1960, the General Conference of Weights and Measure

recommended that everyone should use a metric system. This metric system

of measurement is called the International System of Units (in short SI).

1.1 Length

The SI unit for length is the metre (m). One metre is subdivided into 100

centimetres (cm). Since length may vary from very large distances to very

small distances, scientists use what we call multiples and submultiples

respectively. Table 1.1 shows how multiples and submultiples come in handy:

Table 1.1

Unit Equivalent in metres

1 kilometre (km) 1000m (or 1 x 10

3

m)

1 centimetre (cm) 0.01m (or 1 x 10

-2

m)

1 millimetre (mm) 0.001m (or 1 x 10

-3

m)

1 micrometre (mm) 0.000001m (or 1 x 10

-6

m)

1 nanometre (nm) 0.000000001m (or 1 x 10

-9

m)

1.1.1 Standard form notation

The values in the above table show us that any number being either very

small or very large can be written in a manner which is similar. This is called

standard form notation. When a number is written in standard form

notation the following criteria must be observed:

the decimal point must always be situated behind the first integer (zero not

included)

the original number is reflected by the power that is given to the ten in

standard form notation.

Considering the examples set below one should note that when a number is

converted into standard form notation, the decimal point is always placed

behind the first integer. It is very important to note the amount of places that

the decimal point has skipped so that the power of ten can be determined.

Michael Mercieca B.Ed.(Hons)

Topic 1: Basic Quantities Page 2

3600 =3.6 x 10

3

0.005 =5.0 x 10

-3

Note that the number of decimal places the decimal point has moved is

denoted by the power in the standard form, in such a way that if the original

number was larger than one the power would be positive, but if the original

number is less than one the power would have a negative value.

Assignment:

Convert the following numbers into standard form notation:

a) 4650 b) 0.0231 c) 25687 d) 0.954

e) 32.23 f) 0.00025 g) 256 h) 487.12

1.1.2 Instruments that measure length and their use:

In everyday life we are used to measure length with rulers and tape

measures, but for smaller lengths other measuring devices are used, namely:

the vernier callipers (see figure 1.1) and the micrometre screw gauge (see

figure 1.2)

Figure 1.1: The Vernier Callipers

Michael Mercieca B.Ed.(Hons)

Topic 1: Basic Quantities Page 3

Figure 1.2: The micrometre screw gauge

The smaller the length to be measured, the greater is the need to use

instruments which are accurate. In physics, accuracy is of prime importance.

Therefore as lengths get smaller and smaller we have to use instruments

which are appropriate. Table 1.2 shows which instrument should be used in a

certain range of length.

Table 1.2

Length to be measured Measuring instrument Best accuracy

several metres steel tape measure 1.0mm

about 1cm to 1m ruler 0.5mm

about 1mm to 10cm vernier callipers 0.1mm

about 0.1mm to 3cm micrometre screw gauge 0.01mm

When measurements are being done, one must be careful that errors are

avoided as much as possible. Inaccurate readings are usually obtained

because of parallax errors. A parallax error is committed when one reads a

scale at an angle. Parallax errors are done away with when one reads a scale

at right angles to it as shown in figure 1.3.

Michael Mercieca B.Ed.(Hons)

Topic 1: Basic Quantities Page 4

Figure 1.3

1.1.3 Measuring area

Given a surface, one can calculate its area by using one of the standard

equations that are available, namely: A =l b or A =p r

2

. Since the SI unit for

length is the metre (m), then the SI unit for area is the metre squared (m

2

).

Nevertheless, we sometimes measure area in centimetres squared (cm

2

) or

millimetres squared (mm

2

).

1.1.4 Measuring volume

Volume is the amount of space occupied by an object.

1.1.4.1 Measuring volume for regular objects

For regular objects the volume can be obtained by using the following

equation, namely: Volume =length x breadth x height. The SI unit for volume

is the cubic metre (m

3

). Since the cubic metre is a relatively large unit of

measurement we often use the cubic centimetre (cm

3

) instead.

1.1.4.2 Measuring volume for irregular objects

When it comes to measure the volume for irregular objects two methods are

usually used, using two different apparata, namely: a) the displacement can,

b) the measuring cylinder. A description of the above methods follows:

a) measuring cylinder method

Let us consider that we have a piece of stone and we want to find its volume.

We cannot do so by using the above named equation but instead we use a

Michael Mercieca B.Ed.(Hons)

Topic 1: Basic Quantities Page 5

method called the displacement method whereby the

irregular object concerned is lowered into a measuring

cylinder containing a known amount of water. The level

of water in the measuring cylinder rises by an amount

that is equivalent to the volume of the irregular object as

shown in figure 1.4.

b) displacement can method:

The volume of an irregular object is measured by the

displacement can method in the following manner: first

fill the displacement can in such a way that if more

water is added it will spill out of the spout. Place a

beaker or measuring cylinder under the spout so that

when the irregular object is gently placed into the

displacement can, the water that overflows is collected.

It stands to reason that the volume of water that

overflows is equivalent to the volume of the irregular

object placed in the displacement can. A diagram of the apparatus mentioned

can be found below in figure 1.5.

Figure 1.4

Figure 1.5

Assignments:

a) Name a method for measuring the volume of an irregular object.

b) Describe how you would go about to find volume using this method.

c) Draw a clearly labelled diagram of the apparatus you would use.

d) Select the instrument you would use to measure the following:

the thickness of a human hair

the diameter of a table tennis ball

the area of a window pane

the inside diameter or bore of a water pipe

the volume of liquid in a wine bottle

the volume of a glass stopper

Michael Mercieca B.Ed.(Hons)

Topic 1: Basic Quantities Page 6

1.1.5 Conversion of units

Up till now we have mentioned several units concerning length. First of all the

SI unit for length is the metre but what if we want to know how many

centimetres we have instead of metres? What should we do? These

questions are asked every time we are faced with the problem of converting

units from one form to another. You must already be wondering how you are

going to convert cubic metres (m

3

) into cubic centimetres (cm

3

). Table 1. 3 is

a guide to help you convert units painlessly !

Table 1.3

Unit Unit to convert to What to do

metre (m) centimetre (cm) multiply by 100

metre (m) millimetre (mm) multiply by 1000

centimetre (cm) millimetre(mm) multiply by 10

centimetre (cm) metre (m) divide by 100

millimetre (mm) metre (m) divide by 1000

millimetre (mm) centimetre (cm) divide by 10

square metre (m

2

) square centimetre (cm

2

) multiply by (100x100)

square metre (m

2

) square millimetre (mm

2

) multiply by (1000x1000)

square centimetre (cm

2

) square millimetre (mm

2

) multiply by (10x10)

square centimetre (cm

2

) square metre (m

2

) divide by (100x100)

square millimetre (mm

2

) square metre (m

2

) divide by (1000x1000)

square millimetre (mm

2

) square centimetre (cm

2

) divide by (10x10)

cubic metre (m

3

) cubic centimetre (cm

3

) multiply by (100x100x100)

cubic metre (m

3

) cubic millimetre (mm

3

) multiply by

(1000x1000x1000)

cubic centimetre (cm

3

) cubic millimetre (mm

3

) multiply by (10x10x10)

cubic centimetre (cm

3

) cubic metre (m

3

) divide by (100x100x100)

cubic millimetre (mm

3

) cubic metre (m

3

) divide by

(1000x1000x1000)

cubic millimetre (mm

3

) cubic centimetre (cm

3

) divide by (10x10x10)

1.2 Mass

Mass is the amount of matter that is present in an object. The amount of

matter in an object depends on the number of atoms it contains and the size

of those atoms. The SI unit for mass is the kilogram (kg). The kilogram is

Michael Mercieca B.Ed.(Hons)

Topic 1: Basic Quantities Page 7

subdivided into smaller units called grams (g). The kilogram contains 1000

grams.

1.2.1 Methods to determine mass

Several methods for measuring mass are available.

The beam balance shown in figure 1.6 is used in such

a way that the object to be measured is placed on one

side of the balance while objects of known mass are

placed on the other side. Mass is then determined

when the unknown mass on one side, balances with

the known mass on the other.

Figure 1.6

The lever balance shown in figure 1.7

measures mass by a system of levers that act

against the unknown mass that is placed in the

pan for measurement. The lever balance is

constructed in such a way that the horizontal

rod on which a metal slider of known mass

slides to and forth, is marked with a scale so

that when the horizontal rod balances in mid

air, the position of the metal slider on the

horizontal rod is noted thus obtaining the mass of the unknown mass in the

pan.

Figure 1.7

The modern top pan electronic balance shown in

figure 1.8 is a very sensitive and accurate means of

measuring the mass of an unknown object. Unlike

the other two types of measuring devices, the

electronic balance needs to be connected to a electric

power supply. All that needs to be done to measure

something is to place the object concerned on top of

the pan that is usually placed on top of this measuring

device. The mass of the object is then given in digital

format.

Figure 1.8

1.2.2 The difference between mass and weight

Unfortunately, in everyday life people use the words mass and weight as if

they mean the same thing, but in fact they do not. Mass is the amount of

matter in an object while weight is the amount of force that the earth exerts

on an object.

Michael Mercieca B.Ed.(Hons)

Topic 1: Basic Quantities Page 8

The difference between mass and weight is easily explained when one takes

into consideration an astronaut

1

who goes onto the moon. Since the moon is

much smaller than Earth, it exerts a smaller force per unit mass. So as one

would expect the astronauts mass on Earth and on the moon is the same but

the astronauts weight on the Earth is larger than on the moon because the

Earth exerts a larger force than the moon on the same mass.

Table 1.4 is a summary of the differences between mass and weight. Some

of the ideas in this table shall be discussed later but they are given here for

reference.

Table 1.4

MASS WEIGHT

is measured in kilograms (kg) is measured in Newtons (N)

is a measure of the amount of matter

in an object

is the pull of the earth on the object

is a scalar quantity is a vector quantity

is constant everywhere changes slightly when an object

moves to different places on earth, is

reduced to zero in deep space

can be measured in comparison with

a standard mass

can be measured by the extension of

a spring balance or by comparison

with another weight on a beam

balance

1.2.3 Density

We usually talk of lightness and heaviness of various objects. Let us consider

an example:

Consider a small nail made of iron and a large wooden table. Of course the

table has a very much larger mass than the nail. Consequently can we say

that wood is heavier than iron?

Of course this is not so because the table has a larger mass than the nail not

because wood is heavier than iron but because the table has a larger volume

than the nail. Thus using the concept of mass alone we cannot compare one

substance with another - we must also take into account the size or volume of

the substance to be compared so the idea of Density has emerged and has

1

An astronaut is a person who rides in a space vehicle, specifically one of the test pilots

selected to participate in United States programs for manned space flight.

Michael Mercieca B.Ed.(Hons)

Topic 1: Basic Quantities Page 9

been found to present a very clear and sound method of comparing different

substances.

Consider a block of certain material having a mass of 5000kg and a volume of

10m

3

. Thus 10m

3

of this material have a mass of 5000kg. So 1m3 of this

material has a mass of 5000/10 =500kg. Thus we say that the density is

found by dividing the mass of a sample by its volume.

The density of different substances is of course different using this system we

can easily and correctly compare substances for example the density of

mercury is larger that that of iron. Thus we may say that mercury is heavier

than iron, volume for volume.

One must note that density varies only from a substance to another and not

from an object to object of the same material. Thus if we have another block

of the same substance mentioned earlier having a mass of 1000kg and a

volume of 2m

3

. The density would be the same ie. 1000/2 =500kg/m

3

.

So we should always say; Density of a substance and not density of an

object.

1.3 Time

Methods of telling time, or measuring time, all depend on some regular event,

either natural or devised. The sun has provided us with a natural clock which

counts in years, as the earth travels in orbit round it, and in days, as the earth

rotates on its own axis. The sundial was devised to divide up the day using

the sun-cast shadow of a rod as a slowly moving pointer across a dial. But we

needed clocks that ran in the dark and clocks that were accurate. As

technology developed we needed clocks of ever greater accuracy until now

our computers need clocks which measure time in fractions of a millionth of a

second.

1.3.1 Measuring time

The SI unit for time is the second (s). Time is also measured in minutes and

hours. Remember that 60 seconds make up one minute and 60 minutes or

360 seconds make up 1 hour.

Michael Mercieca B.Ed.(Hons)

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