Measurement and Units

Units & Measurement

Scientific investigations often involve making measurements. A measurement includes both a number and a unit of measure. Scientific investigations use a standard system of units called Le Système International d’Unités (SI), which is a modern version of the metric system. SI is based on a decimal system that uses the number 10 as the base unit. See the below table for information on SI and metric units of measure commonly used in science.

Length

The standard SI unit to measure length is the meter (m). The distance from a doorknob to the floor is about 1 m. The meter is divided into 100 equal parts called centimeters (cm). Thus, 1 cm is 1/100 of 1 m. One millimeter (mm) is smaller than 1 cm. There are 10 mm in 1 cm. Longer distances are measured in kilometers (km). There are 1000 m in 1 km.

Mass

The amount of matter in an object is called mass. Mass depends on the number and types of atoms that make up the object. The mass of an object is the same no matter where the object is located in the universe. The SI unit of mass is the kilogram (kg).

Weight

Weight is a measure of the gravitational force on an object. Weight is typically measured with some type of scale. Unlike mass, weight varies with location. For example, the weight of an astronaut while on the Moon is about one-sixth the astronaut’s weight on Earth. This is because the gravitational force exerted by the Moon on the astronaut is one-sixth the force exerted by Earth on the astronaut. Weight is a force, and the SI unit for force is the newton (N). A 2-L bottle of soft drink with a mass of 2 kg weighs about 20 N on Earth.

Area and volume

Some measurements, such as area, require a combination of SI units. Area is the amount of surface included within a set of boundaries and is expressed in square units of length, such as square meters (m2). The amount of space occupied by an object is the object’s volume.

The SI units for volume, like those for area, are derived from the SI units used to measure length. The basic SI unit of volume for a solid object is the cubic meter (m3). Measurements for fluid volumes are usually made in milliliters (mL) or liters (L). Liters and milliliters are metric units that are commonly used to measure liquid volumes. Volume can also be expressed in cubic centimeters (cm3)— 1 cm3 equals 1 mL.

Density

The measure of the amount of matter that occupies a given space is density. Density is calculated by dividing the mass of the matter by its volume. Density is often expressed in grams per cubic centimeter (g/cm3), grams per milliliter (g/mL), or kilograms per cubic meter (kg/m3).

Time

The interval between two events is time. The SI unit of time is the second. In the activities in this book, you will generally measure time in seconds or minutes. Time is usually measured with a watch or clock. The atomic clock provides the most precise measure of time currently known. Known as UTC, Coordinated Universal Time is based on the atomic clock element cesium-133 and is adapted to the astronomical demarcation of day and night.

Temperature

A measure of the average kinetic energy of the particles that make up a material is called temperature. A mass made up of particles that vibrate quickly generally has a higher temperature than a mass whose particles vibrate more slowly. Temperature is measured in degrees with a thermometer. Scientists often measure temperature using the Celsius (°C) scale. On the Celsius scale, a comfortable room temperature is about 21°C, and the normal temperature of the human body is about 37°C. The SI unit for temperature is the kelvin (K). The coldest possible temperature, absolute zero, was established as 0 K or –273 °C. Since both temperature units are the same size, the difference between the two scales (273) is used to convert from one scale to another. For example, the temperature of the human body is 37°C, to which you would add 273 to get 310 K.

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