Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Absolutes vs. relatives

Though my advisor has stressed this for the entirety of my grad school career, I today finally appreciated the significance of relative measurements over absolute ones.

An absolute measurement is one in which a value is extracted from a data set that is physically important in a particular model. A relative measurement, on the other hand, is one that extracts the effect of varying a parameter amongst two or more data sets.

Model specific parameters are obtained from absolute measurements. Curve fitting is usually performed to find the values of parameters. Alternatively, relative measurements establish relationships between two variables. For example, the reading on a scale will increase proportionally with the mass added on top of it. From this observation, one can infer that weight is linear with mass. A constant, namely the acceleration of a particle due to gravity at the earth's surface, is needed to obtain the absolute value of the weight from a single measurement.

The practical problem with absolute measurements is that they require certain standards to have any significance. At the start of graduate school, I would often puzzle over why a parameter from a curve fitting routine would so often differ from theory. I would often vary different parameters in my calculation and struggle in vain to determine which independent quantity I had measured "wrongly." However, I failed to realize that each measurement was against some standard. A time is measured relative to an internal clock in a circuit; a length is measured relative to a ruler; mass is measured relative to a scale which was calibrated relative to some mass standard.

From the above it seems that the nature of measurement itself is a relative process, and as such a measurement can not be "wrong." If standards differ between two measurements, the measured variable will differ as well. And no one can say which measurement produced the "correct" value. Both conclusions are correct so long as they are logically consistent with how they are derived from the measurement.

I am aware of the definitions of the second and other fundamental quantities, but the definitions are simply agreed to based upon the precision of the measurement that produced the standard. They are arbitrary.

If I have to assert anything from this, it is that I value relative measurements above absolute measurements in scientific papers. Relative measurements reveal physical truths where as absolute ones tell us how well data fit into some theory.

I hope to write more on this in the future once my thoughts have more fully materialized.