SI Base Units
The SI (Système International d'Unités) is a globally agreed system of units, with seven base units.
Formally agreed by the 11th General Conference on Weights and Measures (CGPM) in 1960, the SI is at the centre of all modern science and technology. The definition and realisation of the base and derived units is an active research topic for metrologists with more precise methods being introduced as they become available.
There are two classes of units in the SI: base units and derived units. The base units provide the reference used to define all the measurement units of the system, whilst the derived units are products of base units and are used as measures of derived quantities:
- The seven SI base units, which comprise:
- The ampere (A) - unit of measurement of electric current
- The kilogram (kg) - unit of measurement of mass
- The metre (m) - unit of measurement of length
- The second (s) - unit of measurement of time
- The kelvin (K) - unit of measurement of thermodynamic temperature
- The mole (mol) - unit of measurement of amount of substance
- The candela (cd) - unit of measurement of luminous intensity
- Examples of SI derived units
There are recommendations as to how to use SI units. SI prefixes are used to form decimal multiples and submultiples of the units:
Some non-SI units are still widely used:
The definitions of the SI units have a continuing history of change:
Fundamental Constants and Units
The fundamental physical constants, such as the speed of light, the Planck constant and the mass of the electron provide a system of natural units.
However, these must be related to the SI units by experiment. This experimental work is a global effort mostly undertaken in national standards laboratories to which NPL contributes. The constants provide the link between the SI units and theory and also between one part of physics and the SI and another.
For more information, a review article describing the background to the change to units based on fundamental constants is available.
NPL has activity in the Planck constant (watt balance) Rydberg constant (Hydrogen spectroscopy) Stefan-Boltzman constant (ARD).
Recommended Values of the Constants
A list of values and uncertainties of the most frequently used constants to CODATA Recommended Values (2005) is available.
These values are taken from the recommended values of the constants which are produced by the CODATA Task Group on Fundamental Constants, based on a review of all the available data. The latest review is available at the CODATA fundamental constants page at NIST. This should be consulted for values of the less frequently used constants or for covariances between the constants.
SI, Units & Constants FAQs
- Metrology is a service discipline - responding to a perceived need for a particular measurement accuracy, either now or in the near future.
- The recommended values of the fundamental constants are produced by the CODATA Task Group on Fundamental Constants the most recent evaluation was in 1998.
- We already can set limits on the drift over a long period by looking at the values obtained for fundamental constants that depend critically on mass.
- The very term fundamental physical constants invites two questions: are they fundamental and are they constant.
- There are several reasons for maintaining separate national capabilities.
- What is evolving is our knowledge of the constants not as far as we know their values, which for the purposes of evaluation are considered constant.
- The relationships are many and complex.
- A difficult question perhaps impossible. In what way the minimum? Some would say seven have been introduced into the SI because seven are needed. It has also been argued that with the use of fundamental constants only one unit is needed.
- No dimensioned measurement can be made more accurately than its corresponding SI unit is known. Thus the measurements with the smallest uncertainty are those of frequencies as the second is the most precisely realised unit.
- The international system is a set of seven base units chosen to fulfil the requirements of science and technology. The selection of seven base units is a matter of choice.
- Temperature is an intensive property and we can only measure thermodynamic temperature via measurable quantities which change with temperature. Because this is re-measured from time to time and the values revised, this scale may differ from the true thermodynamic temperature scale.
- If we did, we would have to change the definition of the metre each time we were able to make a more precise laser.
- The name 'kilogram' is a historical quirk.
- Discussions in Europe under the MERA project are pointing in the direction of this alternative to a single world or European institute, but some duplication and collaboration will probably always be required.