1.3.3 The International System of Units (SI)

The International System of Units (in French Le Systeme International d’Unités — abbreviated as SI) was established by the 11th General Conference on Weights and Measures (CGPM from Conference Generale des Poids et Measures). The CGPM is an inter-governmental treaty organisation created by a diplomatic treaty known as Metre Convention, which was signed in Paris in 1875.

The SI system has seven base units and they are listed in Table 1.1. These units pertain to the seven fundamental scientific quantities. The other physical quantities, such as speed, volume, density, etc., can be derived from these quantities. The SI system allows the use of prefixes to indicate the multiples or submultiples of a unit.


Maintaining the National Standards of Measurement

The system of units, including unit definitions, keeps on changing with time. Whenever the accuracy of measurement of a particular unit was enhanced substantially by adopting new principles, member nations of metre treaty (signed in 1875), agreed to change the formal definition of that unit.

Each modern industrialised country, including India, has a National Metrology Institute (NMI), which maintains standards of measurements. This responsibility has been given to the National Physical Laboratory (NPL), New Delhi.

This laboratory establishes experiments to realise the base units and derived units of measurement and maintains National Standards of Measurement. These standards are periodically inter -compared with standards maintained at other National Metrology Institutes in the world, as well as those, established at the International Bureau of Standards in Paris.


Mass and Weight

Mass of a substance is the amount of matter present in it, while weight is the force exerted by gravity on an object. The mass of a substance is constant, whereas, its weight may vary from one place to another due to change in gravity. You should be careful in using these terms.

The mass of a substance can be determined accurately in the laboratory by using an analytical balance (Fig. 1.5). The SI unit of mass as given in Table 1.1 is kilogram. However, its fraction named as gram (1 kg = 1000 g), is used in laboratories due to the smaller amounts of chemicals used in chemical reactions.



Volume is the amont of space occupied by a substance. It has the units of (length)3 . So in SI system, volume has units of m3 . But again, in chemistry laboratories, smaller volumes are used. Hence, volume is often denoted in cm3 or dm3 units. A common unit, litre (L) which is not an SI unit, is used for measurement of volume of liquids.

1 L = 1000 mL , 1000 cm3 = 1 dm3

In the laboratory, the volume of liquids or solutions can be measured by graduated cylinder, burette, pipette, etc. A volumetric flask is used to prepare a known volume of a solution.



The two properties — mass and volume discussed above are related as follows:

Density = Mass / Volume

Density of a substance is its amount of mass per unit volume. So, SI units of density can be obtained as follows:

SI unit of density = SI unit of mass / SI unit of volume = Kg m-3

This unit is quite large and a chemist often expresses density in g cm–3, where mass is expressed in gram and volume is expressed in cm 3 . Density of a substance tells us about how closely its particles are packed. If density is more, it means particles are more closely packed.



There are three common scales to measure temperature — °C (degree celsius), °F (degree Fahrenheit) and K (kelvin). Here, K is the SI unit. The thermometers based on these scales are shown in Fig. 1.8. Generally, the thermometer with celsius scale are calibrated from 0° to 100°, where these two temperatures are the freezing point and the boiling point of water, respectively. The fahrenheit scale is represented between 32° to 212°.

The temperatures on two scales are related to each other by the following relationship:

°F = (9 / 5) °C + 32

The kelvin scale is related to celsius scale as follows:

K = °C + 273.15

It is interesting to note that temperature below 0 °C (i.e., negative values) are possible in Celsius scale but in Kelvin scale, negative temperature is not possible.

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