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Science: How to spot (and fix) experimental errors

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Science: How to spot (and fix) experimental errors

Something’s gone wrong… but what? And where? And… who? No, notwho.

You’re there in your fancy lab coat, with your fancysteampunk goggles and beakers filled with a bubbling rainbow of liquids. It’ssciencing time! But no matter what kind of experiment you’re running in your dungeonlab, you need to keep a googled eye out for errors that could explode in yourface like Mentos in Coke.

For starters you need to know that there are two types of errors when it comes to scientific experiments: systematic and random.

Which is which?

Systematic errors generally happen because of something that’sgone wrong with equipment or calculation, and they will be the same kind oferror each time. Which means they are consistent, but will stuff up youraccuracy. Imagine a measuring tape like you’d use to check your size forclothing. If it’s been streeeeetched out over the years because it’s been inyour family for generations, those centimetres or inches may be a bit longerthan they should be.

Random errors are like rolling dice – they will change your results, but not consistently, so they could be plusses or minuses or eggs or… probably not eggs. But they will cause trouble for the reliability of your results. (They’re also a bit easier to spot than systematic errors…) Imagine you’re trying to measure your girth around your belly button, but you keep laughing so your stomach goes in and out. You’ll get a different result each time.

How do we fix them?

To prevent systematic errors, you need to make sure yourequipment is calibrate correctly. Check your heirloom measuring tape against aruler. Check your scales against another set. Make sure you know what thosesymbols mean – “mm” is millimetres, not “multiple metres”.

With random errors, the best prevention is to measuremultiple times – because you’ll get a cluster of results around the truefigure. Even if you’re laughing, you’ll get a better sense of your girth withmultiple attempts than you would by measuring once and going with that figure.

It won’t always be possible to spot your own errors, but it’sworth stopping every once in a while for a sense check. Ask someone else tolook over your results, or walk away for a bit and look at them with fresheyes. If you find yourself thinking, “That can’t be right…” it’s worth grabbingthat measuring tape one more time.

Take it from someone who spent Year Five telling people hewas 180cm tall, when he was more like 150… when standing on a brick.

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