Chemistry » Essential Ideas in Chemistry » Mathematical Treatment of Measurement Results

Dimensional Analysis

By the end of this lesson and the next few, you should be able to:

  • Explain the dimensional analysis (factor label) approach to mathematical calculations involving quantities
  • Use dimensional analysis to carry out unit conversions for a given property and computations involving two or more properties

Mathematical Treatment of Measurement Results

It is often the case that a quantity of interest may not be easy (or even possible) to measure directly but instead must be calculated from other directly measured properties and appropriate mathematical relationships. For example, consider measuring the average speed of an athlete running sprints. This is typically accomplished by measuring the time required for the athlete to run from the starting line to the finish line, and the distance between these two lines, and then computing speed from the equation that relates these three properties:

\(\text{speed} = \cfrac{\text{distance}}{\text{time}}\)

An Olympic-quality sprinter can run 100 m in approximately 10 s, corresponding to an average speed of

\(\cfrac{100 \text{m}}{10 \text{s}} = 10 \text{m/s}\)

Note that this simple arithmetic involves dividing the numbers of each measured quantity to yield the number of the computed quantity (100/10 = 10) and likewise dividing the units of each measured quantity to yield the unit of the computed quantity (m/s = m/s).

Now, consider using this same relation to predict the time required for a person running at this speed to travel a distance of 25 m. The same relation between the three properties is used, but in this case, the two quantities provided are a speed (10 m/s) and a distance (25 m). To yield the sought property, time, the equation must be rearranged appropriately:

\(\text{time} = \cfrac{\text{distance}}{\text{speed}}\)

The time can then be computed as:

\(\cfrac{25 \text{m}}{10 \text{m/s}} = 2.5 \text{s}\)

Again, arithmetic on the numbers (25/10 = 2.5) was accompanied by the same arithmetic on the units (m/m/s = s) to yield the number and unit of the result, 2.5 s. Note that, just as for numbers, when a unit is divided by an identical unit (in this case, m/m), the result is “1”—or, as commonly phrased, the units “cancel.”

These calculations are examples of a versatile mathematical approach known as dimensional analysis (or the factor-label method). Dimensional analysis is based on this premise: the units of quantities must be subjected to the same mathematical operations as their associated numbers. This method can be applied to computations ranging from simple unit conversions to more complex, multi-step calculations involving several different quantities.

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