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Uncertainty and

Equipment Error

by Chris Paine

Absolute uncertainty and recording data

When you record measurements you should also
record the (absolute) uncertainty associated with
the measurement

The uncertainty reflects greatest precision, i.e. the

smallest unit to which a measurement can be
made. This method of quoting uncertainty is called
least count

Absolute uncertainty and recording data

For example measuring a length:
We measure a length of 213 mm
The smallest unit on a ruler is 1mm therefore the

uncertainty is (1 mm)
Therefore as we know the value should be no less
than 212 mm and no more than 214 mm
Therefore we can quote the value as 213 mm (1

Uncertainties and recording data

It is illogical to report values with more decimal

places than that indicated by the uncertainty for

9.63 0.6 the last decimal place has no meaning
and the number should be reported as 9.6 0.6

If a value 48cm3 is measured to an uncertainty of

0.5cm3 it should be quoted as 48.0cm3 (0.5
cm3) this is an IBO guideline

What about uncertainties in processed data?

If means and standard deviations are calculated from a
data set. Therefore they should be quoted in the same
units and the same uncertainty as the data they are
calculated from.

For example:
10 mm (1 mm)
12 mm (1 mm)
14 mm (1 mm)

Mean = (10 mm + 12 mm + 14 mm) / 3

= 12 mm (1 mm)

Standard deviation = 2 mm (1 mm)

Deciding on the level of uncertainty

Uncertainty may be quoted on a piece of apparatus or in its
manual use that

If this information is not available use the least count method

You may choose to increase your uncertainty to reflect the
way a piece of equipment is used. Justify this decision in
your lab report.

Time is different, stopwatches depend both on the reaction

time of the user and how they are used:
It takes us 0.1 0.3 seconds to start and stop a watch.

Therefore the uncertainty is in the region of 1s

If you are taking interval measurements, e.g. you observe an
investigation every 2 minutes then your uncertainty is the
same as your interval 2 min

Examples of uncertainty
For example, the school electronic balances measure to 1/100th
of a gram e.g. 2.86 g

The precision of the electronic balance is 0.01 g

Hence the reading on the electronic balance should be reported
as 2.86 g (0.01 g)

When using a ruler we can usually be accurate to the nearest mm

The implied limits of the measurement 28 mm are 27 mm 29
This can be written as 28 mm (1 mm), where the 1 mm is the
absolute uncertainty

N.B. Quote the uncertainty in the column header (e.g. 0.01 g or 1

mm) of your data table rather than against each

Be careful of Repeated equipment use

I use a 300 mm ruler to measure 970 mm, what is
the uncertainty?

To measure the length I must of used the ruler 3

times (300 mm + 300 mm + 270 mm)
Hence the uncertainty in my measurements is 3
times as big (1 mm + 1 mm + 1 mm)
Therefore my measurement is 970 mm (3 mm)
N.B. In reality the investigator should have made a
better choice of equipment, e.g. 1m ruler

Be careful of Repeated equipment use

I am carrying out a vitamin C titration in a 50cm3
burette with an uncertainty of 0.05cm3. My
starting volume reads 48cm3. When I finish my
titration the volume reads 35.6cm3.
The volume I used in the titration is 12.4cm3
(48cm3 35.6cm3)
I took two reading from the burette therefore my
uncertainty doubled to 0.1cm3 (0.05cm3 +
Therefore my volume is 12.4cm3 (0.1cm3)

Systematic Error
Analysis of systematic error looks at how rigorously
your method controlled, varied and measured the
different variables

One aspect is equipment error, i.e. was the

equipment choice and use appropriate?

Ideally equipment errors ideally should be below


Equipment Error
Although it is optional to assess equipment errors it is
highly recommended

For each different use of equipment calculate the %


Calculate the error on the smallest quantity measured.

The smallest quantity will generate the largest error.

Ideally equipment errors ideally should be below 5%

Repeated calculations can be useful to illustrate cases
where only a couple of measurements break the 5%
error rule. Use your judgment.

Calculating % equipment errors

Use a table to organise the calculations
The table enhances the evaluation therefore add to the evaluation
section of the lab report
and use



% Error

(= uncertainty x 100 / amount


Example Calculations
13 mm was the smallest length measured
1 mm the uncertainty
% Equipment Error = uncertainty x 100 / amount

= 1 mm x 100 / 13
= 6.7 %

Evaluation - What if an Equipment Error

is greater than 5%?
Recommend a change to a more accurate named
example of measuring equipment

Suggest than larger (suggest an amount) amounts

are measured/sampled to bring error below 5%

Evaluation what if equipment errors are below

Its not necessary to suggest a change, but still
comment on it to show that youve critically
evaluated your equipment use.

Design - make sure you are measuring the right

If % Equipment Error = uncertainty x 100 / amount

Then amount measured = uncertainty x 100 / %

Equipment Error

Therefore smallest amount measured uncertainty x