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Topic 1: Basic Quantities Page 1

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
1 centimetre (cm) 0.01m (or 1 x 10
1 millimetre (mm) 0.001m (or 1 x 10
1 micrometre (mm) 0.000001m (or 1 x 10
1 nanometre (nm) 0.000000001m (or 1 x 10

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
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
0.005 =5.0 x 10
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.

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
. Since the SI unit for
length is the metre (m), then the SI unit for area is the metre squared (m
Nevertheless, we sometimes measure area in centimetres squared (cm
) or
millimetres squared (mm
1.1.4 Measuring volume
Volume is the amount of space occupied by an object. 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
). Since the cubic metre is a relatively large unit of
measurement we often use the cubic centimetre (cm
) instead. 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

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
) into cubic centimetres (cm
). 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
) square centimetre (cm
) multiply by (100x100)
square metre (m
) square millimetre (mm
) multiply by (1000x1000)
square centimetre (cm
) square millimetre (mm
) multiply by (10x10)
square centimetre (cm
) square metre (m
) divide by (100x100)
square millimetre (mm
) square metre (m
) divide by (1000x1000)
square millimetre (mm
) square centimetre (cm
) divide by (10x10)

cubic metre (m
) cubic centimetre (cm
) multiply by (100x100x100)
cubic metre (m
) cubic millimetre (mm
) multiply by
cubic centimetre (cm
) cubic millimetre (mm
) multiply by (10x10x10)
cubic centimetre (cm
) cubic metre (m
) divide by (100x100x100)
cubic millimetre (mm
) cubic metre (m
) divide by
cubic millimetre (mm
) cubic centimetre (cm
) 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
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

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

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
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
Table 1.4
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

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

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
Consider a block of certain material having a mass of 5000kg and a volume of
. Thus 10m
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
. The density would be the same ie. 1000/2 =500kg/m
So we should always say; Density of a substance and not density of an

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
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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