It’s not widely appreciated how often physicists can guess the answer to a problem before they even start calculating. By combining a basic consistency requirement with scientific reasoning, they can often use a heuristic approach to solving problems that allows them to derive most of a formula without doing any work at all. This week I want to introduce this to you, and show you some of its power.
The trick, called “dimensional analysis” or “unit analysis” or “dimensional reasoning”, involves requiring consistency among units, sometimes called “dimensions.” For instance, the distance from the Earth to the Sun is, obviously, a length. We can state the length in kilometers, or in miles, or in inches; each is a unit of length. But for today’s purposes, it’s irrelevant which one we use. What’s important is this: the Earth-Sun distance has to be expressed in some unit of length, because, well, it’s a length! Or in physics-speak, it has the “dimensions of length.”
For any equation in physics of the form X = Y, the two sides of the equation have to be consistent with one another. If X has dimensions of length, then Y must also have dimensions of length. If X has dimensions of mass, then Y must also. Just as you can’t meaningfully say “I weigh twelve meters” or “I am seventy kilograms old”, physics equations have to make sense, relating weights to weights, or lengths to lengths, or energies to energies. If you see an equation X=Y where X is in meters and Y is in Joules (a measure of energy), then you know there’s a typo or a conceptual mistake in the equation.
In fact, looking for this type of inconsistency is a powerful tool, used by students and professionals alike, in checking calculations for errors. I use it both in my own research and when trying to figure out, when grading, where a student went wrong.
That’s nice, but why is it useful beyond checking for mistakes?
Sometimes, when you have a problem to solve involving a few physical quantities, there might be only one consistent equation relating them — only one way to set an X equal to a Y. And you can guess that equation without doing any work.
Well, that’s pretty abstract; let’s see how it works in a couple of examples.