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SI units, force, mass and Learning objectives

acceleration After reading this article you should be able to:
E Byron Howells
C define and list all seven fundamental (base) SI units
C derive other SI units
C describe the relationship between force, mass and acceleration

There are seven fundamental (base) SI (Systeme International) units
defined for seven independent dimensions of measurement. Historically 1. Length
these definitions have changed, but they have been in their present The unit of length is the metre (m). The metre is the length of
form since 1960. Any measurement made in science can be expressed the path travelled by light in a vacuum in a time interval of
in terms of these independent dimensions and their units expressed in 1/299,792,458 of a second.
terms of the fundamental units, although some are given their own 2. Time
special names and symbols. Each side of a mathematical equation can The unit of time is the second (s). The second is the duration
be represented using basic dimensions, and both sides should balance. of 9,192,631,770 periods of the radiation corresponding to the
Force is an example of a dependent dimension made up of the indepen- transition between the two hyperfine levels of the ground
dent dimensions of mass, length and time, and therefore the units of state of the caesium-133 atom.
force can be expressed as kgm/s2, although this can be simplified to 3. Mass
the newton (N). When the individual dimensions of a derived unit of The unit of mass is the kilogram (kg). The kilogram is the
measurement are evaluated then it is easier to appreciate the mathemat- mass of the international prototype held in Sevres in France.
ical relationships between different units of measurement to support 4. Electric current
scientific observations, calculations and theories. The unit of current is the ampere (A). The ampere is that
constant current which, if maintained in two straight parallel
Keywords Acceleration; force; mass; SI units; Systeme International conductors of infinite length, of negligible circular cross-
section, and placed 1 metre apart in a vacuum, would
produce between these conductors a force equal to 2  107
newton per metre of length.
5. Thermodynamic temperature
The unit of thermodynamic temperature is the kelvin (K).
Introduction The kelvin is the fraction 1/273.16 of the difference between
A physical quantity is a quantity that can be used in a mathe- absolute zero and the thermodynamic temperature of the
matical equation of science and technology. A unit is a particular triple point of water (the temperature at which the three
fixed physical quantity, defined and adopted by convention, with phases of water can coexist). The SI also recognizes Celsius
which other particular quantities of the same category are ( C) which is given by  C ¼ K  273.15.
compared to express their value. Since 1960, units of measure- 6. Amount of substance
ment have been internationally standardized by the Systeme The unit of the amount of substance is the mole (mol). The mole
International d’Unites (SI units). The SI was established by the is the amount of substance that contains as many elementary
11th General Conference on Weights and Measures (Conference particles as there are atoms in 0.012 kg of carbon-12. Therefore
Generale des Poids et Mesures, CGPM). It is a decimalized a mole of any pure substance has a mass in grams exactly equal to
system based on the unchanging, fundamental and reproducible the molecular or atomic mass of that substance.
properties of nature. It allows a link between different branches The Avogadro constant (L, NA) is the ratio of the number of
of science, all using the same common units of measurement. elementary particles N in a sample to the amount of substance n in
The SI defines both ‘fundamental’ and ‘derived’ units of the sample, i.e. NA ¼ N/n. It has the value 6.022  1023 and units
measurement. per mole (/mol). Prior to the 1971 revision of the SI unit defini-
tions, the amount of substance was described using the closely
Fundamental SI units related dimensionless quantity Avogadro’s number (N), which
has the numerical value of the Avogadro constant expressed in
Fundamental (base) units are dimensionally independent, and base units. One mole of a substance contains Avogadro’s number
any other unit is either a derived unit or not an SI unit at all. (6.023  1023) of particles and at standard temperature and
There are seven fundamental units, and they are the building pressure (0 C and 101.3 kPa) one mole of a gas occupies 22.4
blocks of all other derived units. The seven fundamental units litres.
are: 7. Luminous intensity
The unit of luminous intensity is the candela (cd). The
candela is the luminous intensity, in a given direction, of
E Byron Howells MB BCh (Wales) FRCA is a Consultant Anaesthetist and a source that emits monochromatic radiation of frequency 540
College Tutor at the Princess of Wales Hospital, Bridgend, UK. Conflicts  1012 hertz and that has a radiant intensity in that direction
of interest: none declared. of 1/683 watt per steradian.

ANAESTHESIA AND INTENSIVE CARE MEDICINE 12:9 415 Ó 2011 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

Fundamental units Derived units with special names and symbols

Dimension SI unit Symbol Dimension Name Symbol Units

Length metre m Frequency hertz Hz /s

Time second s Force newton N kgm/s2
Mass kilogram kg Pressure pascal Pa N/m2 or kg/m/s
Electric current ampere A Energy/work joule J Nm or kg/m2/s2
Thermodynamic temperature kelvin K Power watt W J/s or Nm/s or kg
Amount of substance mole mol m2/s3
Luminous intensity candela cd Electrical charge coulomb C As
Potential difference volt V W/A or J/s/A or kg
N.B. SI units whose names are derived from the proper name of a person are
always written in lower case e e.g. kelvin e except where any word would
normally be capitalized, such as in a title or at the beginning of a sentence. Capacitance farad F C/V
The corresponding abbreviated symbols are always written in upper case e Resistance ohm U V/A
e.g. K.

Table 3
Table 1

Derived SI units (Table 3). Some derived units are relatively complex when
expressed in terms of the basic units, and are therefore given
specific names for convenience e e.g. the kgm/s2 is also called
Any measurement made in science can be simplified if it is
the newton (N), the unit of force.
expressed in terms of its basic dimensions. Dimensions are the
Some everyday units are recognized by the system although
basic components of any equation and are independent of units
they themselves are not true SI units. Examples are the litre (103
used. The dimensions of a physical quantity indicate how it is
m3), the minute (60 s), the hour (60 min) and the bar (105 Pa).
related to the basic quantities listed in Table 1.
For example a common term used in physics is velocity,
Prefixes to the SI units
which has the dimensions of length and time and is written in
Many SI units are of an inconvenient order of magnitude to
dimension notation as: [L]/[T]. This denotes that measurement
describe everyday phenomena. Prefixes are therefore used in
of velocity requires that the numerical value of a length be
conjunction with the unit symbols to indicate multiples or
divided by the numerical value of a time in any units but in terms
submultiples. For example, the metre is too large to use to measure
of SI units this would be expressed as metre per second (m/s).
the thickness of a piece of paper, and the pascal (unit of pressure)
Each side of an equation can be represented in basic dimensions
is too small to express ventilator pressures encountered in
and both sides should balance. Most commonly observable
anaesthesia and intensive care. The use of millimetres (mm) and
events can be described using the dimensions of mass [M],
kilopascals (kPa) is more practical. Table 4 shows some common
length [L], time [T] and temperature [ɵ].
prefixes used to produce multiples or submultiples of all SI units.
Derived units
Force, mass and acceleration
These units are derived by the multiplication and/or division of
one or more of the fundamental units (Table 2). Certain derived Force
units have been named and given their own specific symbol, and A force is that which changes the shape, state of rest or motion of
may be further combined to express other derived units a body. A force may cause a stationary body to change position
or shape; and may cause a moving body to change speed or
direction (i.e. change velocity). Force and velocity are both
vector quantities e i.e. they have both magnitude and direction.
Derived units
The unit of force is the newton and it is related to mass and
Dimension Name Units acceleration by the following equation:

Area square metre m2 Force ¼ Mass  Acceleration ðF ¼ maÞ

Volume cubic metre m3
Speed metre per second (direction not specific) m/s Therefore 1 newton is the force required to give a mass of 1 kg an
Velocity metre per second (direction specific) m/s acceleration of 1 m/s2.
Acceleration metre per second per second m/s2 As force is a vector, a single force can be divided up into two
Momentum kilogram metre per second kgm/s or more component forces, and two or more forces can be rep-
Density kilogram per cubic metre kg/m3 resented by a single resultant force (Figure 1).
Current density ampere per square metre A/m2
Concentration mole per cubic metre mol/m3 Mass
Mass is a measure of the inertia of an object. The force needed to
Table 2 accelerate an object by a given amount depends on its mass.

ANAESTHESIA AND INTENSIVE CARE MEDICINE 12:9 416 Ó 2011 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

Prefixes Velocity is the rate of change of displacement per unit time and
has units of metres per second or m/s. Velocity is a vector
Fraction or multiple Prefix Symbol
quantity and so is direction specific. If the velocity of an object is
1024 yotta Y
constant then it is said to be moving with uniform velocity. The
1021 zetta Z
average velocity of an object during a journey is the total
1018 exa E
displacement divided by the time taken, even though the velocity
1015 peta P
at any instant during that journey could have varied.
1012 tera T
Acceleration is the rate of change of velocity or the change in
109 giga G
velocity per unit time and has units of metres per second per
106 mega M
second or m/s2. An object accelerates if its velocity changes (the
103 kilo k
usual case in linear motion) or its direction changes (the usual
102 hecto h
case in circular motion), and for this to occur an external force
101 deca da
must act on that object. An object whose velocity changes by the
101 deci d
same amount in equal periods of time is said to be moving with
102 centi c
uniform acceleration.
103 milli m
106 micro m
109 nano n
Momentum is the product of an object’s mass and its velocity. It
is a vector quantity and has units of kilogram metre per second or
1012 pico p
1015 femto f
1018 atto a
Momentum ¼ Mass  Velocity or Momentum ¼ mv
1021 zepto z
1024 yocto y
Therefore a 70 kg man running at 5 m/s has a momentum of:
70 kg  5 m/s ¼ 350 kgm/s.
Table 4
If an object of fixed mass doubles its velocity, then its
momentum is doubled as well.
A larger mass needs a larger force to change its velocity and so
When two moving objects collide (i.e. exert forces on each
mass can be described as the tendency of an object to resist
other) then the ‘law of conservation of linear momentum’
change of velocity. The unit of mass is the kilogram.
states that the total momentum of both objects before the colli-
Mass is not the same as weight. Weight describes the force
sion is equal to the total momentum of both objects after the
that a body may exert on its surroundings and therefore has the
collision, provided that no external forces act. Mathematically
unit newton. The force of gravity will accelerate a body towards
this is written as:
the earth at 9.81 m/s2. This acceleration due to gravity is fixed
and does not vary with mass. Therefore the weight of a 1 kg m1 v1 þ m2 v2 ¼ m1 v3 þ m2 v4
object on earth is given by:
F ¼ ma m1v1 is the momentum of object 1 before collision
F ¼ 1 kg  9:81 m=s2 m2v2 is the momentum of object 2 before collision
F ¼ 9:81 N m1v3 is the momentum of object 1 after collision
m2v4 is the momentum of object 2 after collision.
If an object of mass 1 kg lies on the ground it will exert a force of
9.81 N on the floor, and the floor will exert an equal and opposite Newton’s laws of motion
force back on the object.
In the 17th century Isaac Newton formulated three laws in
relation to a body’s motion and the forces that are applied to it.

Newton’s first law of motion

‘Every body continues in its state of rest or of uniform motion
FR in a straight line unless acted on by some external force.’
This law expresses the concept of inertia. A body of large mass
requires a large force to change its velocity or its direction by
a noticeable amount e i.e. a large mass has a large inertia.
F2 Newton’s second law of motion

Figure 1 A single force FR can be divided up into component forces (F1 and ‘The rate of change of momentum of a body is directly
F2); or two forces acting in different directions (F1 and F2) can be repre- proportional to the external force acting on the body and takes
sented by a single resultant force FR. place in the direction of the force.’

ANAESTHESIA AND INTENSIVE CARE MEDICINE 12:9 417 Ó 2011 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

Change in momentum dðmvÞ stationary crate, the crate pushes back on the man with a force of
i:e: Force ¼ or F ¼
Time dt exactly the same size. Whether or not the crate starts to move has
nothing to do with the force that it exerts on the man. In
if the mass is constant then the equation becomes:
accordance to Newton’s second law, the crate will start to move
dv if the force exerted by the man is greater than any force acting on
F ¼m
dt the crate in such a way as to resist its motion (e.g. friction
That is : F ¼ ma: between the crate and the ground). A

Newton’s third law of motion

‘For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.’ Moseley M, Lynch J. The story of science. Power proof and passion.
If a body A exerts a force on a body B, then B exerts an equal and Mitchell Beazley, 2010.
oppositely directed force on A. Thus if a man pushes on a large Robinson A. The story of measurement. Thames and Hudson, 2007.

ANAESTHESIA AND INTENSIVE CARE MEDICINE 12:9 418 Ó 2011 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.