Systems of Measurement in Physics - dummies

Systems of Measurement in Physics

By Steven Holzner

To keep like measurements together, physicists and mathematicians have grouped them into measurement systems. The most common measurement system you see in introductory physics is the meter-kilogram-second (MKS) system, referred to as SI (short for Système International d’Unités, the International System of Units), but you may also come across the foot-pound-second (FPS) system.

The table lists the primary units of measurement in the MKS system, along with their abbreviations.

Units of Measurement in the MKS System
Measurement Unit Abbreviation
Length meter m
Mass kilogram kg
Time second s
Force newton N
Energy joule J
Pressure pascal Pa
Electric current ampere A
Magnetic flux density tesla T
Electric charge coulomb C

Because different measurement systems use different standard lengths, you can get several different numbers for one part of a problem, depending on the measurement you use. For example, if you’re measuring the depth of the water in a swimming pool, you can use the MKS measurement system, which gives you an answer in meters, or the less common FPS system, in which case you determine the depth of the water in feet.

The point? When working with equations, stick with the same measurement system all the way through the problem. If you don’t, your answer will be a meaningless hodgepodge, because you’re switching measuring sticks for multiple items as you try to arrive at a single answer. Mixing up the measurements causes problems — imagine baking a cake where the recipe calls for 2 cups of flour, but you use 2 liters instead.