The Uncertainty of Measurements

Some numerical statements are exact: Mary has 3 brothers, and 2 + 2 = 4. However, all measurements have some degree of uncertainty that may come from a variety of sources. The process of evaluating this uncertainty associated with a measurement result is often called uncertainty analysis or error analysis. The complete statement of a measured value should include an estimate of the level of confidence associated with the value. Properly reporting an experimental result along with its uncertainty allows other people to make judgements about the quality of the experiment, and it facilitates meaningful comparisons with other similar values or a theoretical prediction. Without an uncertainty estimate, it is impossible to answer the basic scientific question: "Does my result agree with a theoretical prediction or results from other experiments?" This question is fundamental for deciding if a scientific hypothesis is confirmed or refuted. When we make a measurement, we generally assume that some exact or true value exists based on how we define what is being measured. While we may never know this true value exactly, we attempt to find this ideal quantity to the best of our ability with the time and resources available. As we make measurements by different methods, or even when making multiple measurements using the same method, we may obtain slightly different results. So how do we report our findings for our best estimate of this elusive true value? The most common way to show the range of values that we believe includes the true value is: measurement = best estimate uncertainty

Let�s take an example. Suppose you want to find the mass of a gold ring that you would like to sell to a friend. You do not want to jeopardize your friendship, so you want to get an accurate mass of the ring in order to charge a fair market price. By simply examining the ring in your hand, you estimate the mass to be between 10 and 20 grams, but this is not a very precise estimate. After some searching, you find an electronic balance which gives a mass reading of 17.43 grams. While this measurement is much more precise than the original estimate, how do you know that it is accurate, and how confident are you that this measurement represents the true value of the ring�s mass? Since the digital display of the balance is limited to 2 decimal places, you could report the mass as m = 17.43 0.01 g. Suppose you use the same electronic balance and obtain several more readings: 17.46 g, 17.42 g, 17.44 g, so that the average mass appears to be in the range of 17.44 0.02 g. By now you may feel confident that you know the mass of this ring to the nearest hundreth of a gram, but how do you know that the true value definitely lies between 17.43 g and 17.45 g? Since you want to be honest, you decide to use another balance which gives a reading of 17.22 g. This value is clearly below the range of values found on the first balance, and under normal circumstances, you might not care, but you want to be fair to your friend. So what do you do now? To help answer these questions, we should first define the terms accuracy and precision: Accuracy is the closeness of agreement between a measured value and a true or accepted value. Measurement error is the amount of inaccuracy. Precision is a measure of how well a result can be determined (without reference to a theoretical or true value). It is the degree of consistency and agreement among independent measurements of the same quantity; also the reliability or reproducibility of the result. The statement of uncertainty associated with a measurement should include factors that affect both the accuracy and precision of the measurement. Caution: Unfortunately the terms error and uncertainty are often used interchangeably to describe both imprecision and inaccuracy. This usage is so common that it is impossible to avoid entirely. Whenever you...