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By the end of this section, you will be able to:
  • Explain the process of measurement
  • Identify the three basic parts of a quantity
  • Describe the properties and units of length, mass, volume, density, temperature, and time
  • Perform basic unit calculations and conversions in the metric and other unit systems

Measurements provide the macroscopic information that is the basis of most of the hypotheses, theories, and laws that describe the behavior of matter and energy in both the macroscopic and microscopic domains of chemistry. Every measurement provides three kinds of information: the size or magnitude of the measurement (a number); a standard of comparison for the measurement (a unit); and an indication of the uncertainty of the measurement. While the number and unit are explicitly represented when a quantity is written, the uncertainty is an aspect of the measurement result that is more implicitly represented and will be discussed later.

The number in the measurement can be represented in different ways, including decimal form and scientific notation. (Scientific notation is also known as exponential notation; a review of this topic can be found in Appendix B .) For example, the maximum takeoff weight of a Boeing 777-200ER airliner is 298,000 kilograms, which can also be written as 2.98 × 10 5 kg. The mass of the average mosquito is about 0.0000025 kilograms, which can be written as 2.5 × 10 −6 kg.

Units , such as liters, pounds, and centimeters, are standards of comparison for measurements. When we buy a 2-liter bottle of a soft drink, we expect that the volume of the drink was measured, so it is two times larger than the volume that everyone agrees to be 1 liter. The meat used to prepare a 0.25-pound hamburger is measured so it weighs one-fourth as much as 1 pound. Without units, a number can be meaningless, confusing, or possibly life threatening. Suppose a doctor prescribes phenobarbital to control a patient’s seizures and states a dosage of “100” without specifying units. Not only will this be confusing to the medical professional giving the dose, but the consequences can be dire: 100 mg given three times per day can be effective as an anticonvulsant, but a single dose of 100 g is more than 10 times the lethal amount.

We usually report the results of scientific measurements in SI units, an updated version of the metric system, using the units listed in [link] . Other units can be derived from these base units. The standards for these units are fixed by international agreement, and they are called the International System of Units or SI Units (from the French, Le Système International d’Unités ). SI units have been used by the United States National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) since 1964.

Base Units of the SI System
Property Measured Name of Unit Symbol of Unit
length meter m
mass kilogram kg
time second s
temperature kelvin K
electric current ampere A
amount of substance mole mol
luminous intensity candela cd

Sometimes we use units that are fractions or multiples of a base unit. Ice cream is sold in quarts (a familiar, non-SI base unit), pints (0.5 quart), or gallons (4 quarts). We also use fractions or multiples of units in the SI system, but these fractions or multiples are always powers of 10. Fractional or multiple SI units are named using a prefix and the name of the base unit. For example, a length of 1000 meters is also called a kilometer because the prefix kilo means “one thousand,” which in scientific notation is 10 3 (1 kilometer = 1000 m = 10 3 m). The prefixes used and the powers to which 10 are raised are listed in [link] .

Questions & Answers

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Source:  OpenStax, Chemistry. OpenStax CNX. May 20, 2015 Download for free at http://legacy.cnx.org/content/col11760/1.9
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