Physics » The Nature of Physics » Accuracy, Precision and Significant Figures

Accuracy and Precision

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

  • Determine the appropriate number of significant figures in both addition and subtraction, as well as multiplication and division calculations.
  • Calculate the percent uncertainty of a measurement.

Accuracy and Precision of a Measurement

What is accuracy?

mechanical-balance

A double-pan mechanical balance is used to compare different masses. Usually an object with unknown mass is placed in one pan. Then, objects of known mass are placed in the other pan. When the bar that connects the two pans is horizontal, then the masses in both pans are equal. The “known masses” are typically metal cylinders of standard mass such as 1 gram, 10 grams, and 100 grams. Image credit: Serge Melki

Science is based on observation and experiment—that is, on measurements. Accuracy is how close a measurement is to the correct value for that measurement. For example, let us say that you are measuring the length of standard computer paper. The packaging in which you purchased the paper states that it is 11.0 inches long. You measure the length of the paper three times and obtain the following measurements: 11.1 in., 11.2 in., and 10.9 in. These measurements are quite accurate because they are very close to the correct value of 11.0 inches. In contrast, if you had obtained a measurement of 12 inches, your measurement would not be very accurate.

digital-scale

Many mechanical balances, such as double-pan balances, have been replaced by digital scales. These scales can typically measure the mass of an object more precisely. Whereas a mechanical balance may only read the mass of an object to the nearest tenth of a gram, many digital scales can measure the mass of an object up to the nearest thousandth of a gram. Image credit: Karel Jakubec

What is precision?

The precision of a measurement system is refers to how close the agreement is between repeated measurements (which are repeated under the same conditions). Consider the example of the paper measurements. The precision of the measurements refers to the spread of the measured values.

One way to analyze the precision of the measurements would be to determine the range. The range is the difference between the lowest and the highest measured values. In that case, the lowest value was 10.9 in. and the highest value was 11.2 in. Thus, the measured values deviated from each other by at most 0.3 in. These measurements were relatively precise because they did not vary too much in value. However, if the measured values had been 10.9, 11.1, and 11.9, then the measurements would not be very precise. This is because there would be significant variation from one measurement to another.

Example Illustrating Accuracy and Precision

The measurements in the paper example are both accurate and precise, but in some cases, measurements are accurate but not precise, or they are precise but not accurate. Let us consider an example of a GPS system that is attempting to locate the position of a restaurant in a city. Think of the restaurant location as existing at the center of a bull’s-eye target. Then, think of each GPS attempt to locate the restaurant as a black dot.

low-precision-high-accuracy

A GPS system attempts to locate a restaurant at the center of the bull’s-eye. The black dots represent each attempt to pinpoint the location of the restaurant. The dots are spread out quite far apart from one another, indicating low precision, but they are each rather close to the actual location of the restaurant, indicating high accuracy. Image credit: Dark Evil

In the image above, you can see that the GPS measurements are spread out far apart from each other, but they are all relatively close to the actual location of the restaurant at the center of the target. This indicates a low precision, high accuracy measuring system. However, in the image below the GPS measurements are concentrated quite closely to one another, but they are far away from the target location. This indicates a high precision, low accuracy measuring system.

high-precision-low-accuracy

In this figure, the dots are concentrated rather closely to one another, indicating high precision, but they are rather far away from the actual location of the restaurant, indicating low accuracy. Image credit: Dark Evil

[Attributions and Licenses]


This is a lesson from the tutorial, The Nature of Physics and you are encouraged to log in or register, so that you can track your progress.

Log In

Share Thoughts