FHSST Physics/Units/Importance

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The Free High School Science Texts: A Textbook for High School Students Studying Physics
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Units
PGCE Comments - TO DO LIST - Introduction - Unit Systems - The Importance of Units - Choice of Units - How to Change Units - How Units Can Help You - Temperature - Scientific Notation, Significant Figures, and Rounding - Conclusion

The Importance of Units[edit]

Without units much of our work as scientists would be meaningless. We need to express our thoughts clearly and units give meaning to the numbers we calculate. Depending on which units we use, the numbers are different (e.g. 3.8 m and 3800 mm actually represent the same length). Units are an essential part of the language we use. Units must be specified when expressing physical quantities. In the case of the curtain example at the beginning of the chapter, the result of a misunderstanding would simply have been an incorrect amount of material cut. However, sometimes such misunderstandings have catastrophic results. Here is an extract from a story on CNN's website:

NASA: Human error caused loss of Mars orbiter November 10, 1999
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Failure to convert English measures to metric values caused the loss of the Mars Climate Orbiter, a spacecraft that smashed into the planet instead of reaching a safe orbit, a NASA investigation concluded Wednesday. The Mars Climate Orbiter, a key craft in the space agency's exploration of the red planet, vanished after a rocket firing September 23 that was supposed to put the spacecraft on orbit around Mars. An investigation board concluded that NASA engineers failed to convert English measures of rocket thrusts to newton, a metric system measuring rocket force. One English pound of force equals 4.45 newtons. A small difference between the two values caused the spacecraft to approach Mars at too low an altitude and the craft is thought to have smashed into the planet's atmosphere and was destroyed. The spacecraft was to be a key part of the exploration of the planet. From its station about the red planet, the Mars Climate Orbiter was to relay signals from the Mars Polar Lander, which is scheduled to touch down on Mars next month. ``The root cause of the loss of the spacecraft was a failed translation of English units into metric units and a segment of ground-based, navigation-related mission software," said Arthus Stephenson, chairman of the investigation board. Reported by CNN at http://www.cnn.com/TECH/space/9911/10/orbiter.02/

This story illustrates the importance of being aware that different systems of units exist. Furthermore, we must be able to convert between systems of units!