Thursday, 31 December 2015

Putting units on your answers: A plea on behalf of Physics teachers.

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Have you ever felt like feeding your teacher/ lecturer their text book because, after spending hours pouring over the pointlessly dry and complex physics problem they set, they gave you no marks – even though you got the answer right – because you forgot to put the units?

If you haven’t…. congratulations! You either are a robot from the future, sent back in time to make everyone else feel bad about themselves*, or you have something to blackmail your physics teacher with. Something big. Because I still make that mistake from time to time, and I have freaking PhD in Physics.

But there’s a good reason why you should make the effort not to forget the units - not just in school but in life. Imagine I asked you to do me a favour and buy me "a milk, just a milk, one milk - go, go, go, right now," from the shop down the road. Once you got there you'd find that ‘a milk’ could mean this….

A milk.

...or it could mean this…..

Another milk

…or this….

A recyclable milk

You might be a bit surprised and upset, when you get back, to find I actually mean one of these:


You might be a bit mad. You might ask ‘why has this idiot wasted my time and sent me on a wild goose chase without telling me exactly what he wanted?’ You might be concerned that you were sharing a room with a madman who expected you to get highland cows from the corner shop. And, If I then told you it was to demonstrate why you need to put units on your exam questions, you’d probably shout at me and throw the milk at my head**.  

So it’s a good thing this is just happening in our imaginations. 

But it is exactly why your teacher is being so pedantic about the units - because not putting in units opens has caused some very expensive misunderstandings: NASA once crashed a $115 million space probe into the planet Mars, because a computer program gave them information in kilometres when they expected it in miles - and didn't put 'km' after the number to let hem know.
Result: Flat spaceship at the bottom of yet another crater on Mars.

Mars actually has this crater, it's not CGI or anything. Mars is literally laughing at us. Courtesy of NASA.

No-one wants to explain to their boss why they just blew a hole in the planet Mars (or, as a more realistic example, why the expensive door they ordered for the office is too big for its frame) so getting students to put the right units on things is just one of those life-skills teachers try to get you in the habit of doing.

So, while your teacher may or may not be mean, pedantic, dull, or weird smelling, give them a break on this one thing: Putting the right units after your answer really is worth the effort to do.

Which units?

What units to use? Elephants are what my daughter (she's six) recommended, but elephants are frowned on as units of weight, length, or smell, because you have to fed them so much, take them for walks, and pay vet bills. 

Nor do they fit into a pencil case very well. Courtesy of the BBC.

So in physics we mostly stick to the SI units system, which is a collection of units for basic things that can be used in combinations to cover most situations. For example distance is measured in meters, and time is measured in seconds, so speed, which is distance travelled per unit of time, gets the unit of meters per second, or m/s, or sometimes even ms-1 (they all mean the same thing, it’s just different styles of writing ‘meters per second’). 

Below is a table of the S.I. units.  I really recommend you do your best to learn them – it's worth the time, even for things outside of Physics exams:

* That seems a very petty reason to actually go back in time but, if you are, I'm not going to give you a hard time about it. You might turn out to have a secondary mission to kill anyone who finds out about the first mission.

** If you actually turned up with a cow, which is very unlikely but not entirely impossible, I would call you 'Master'. Whether you wanted me to or not.