An __operational definition__ is a procedure by which a number can be assigned to a physical quantity. Such a definition typically has a range of validity. An example is length.

To assign a number to a length, we have to:

- Choose a standard unit of length (e.g, an inch or a cm)
- Compare our standard to the length we are trying to measure by counting how many of the standard units can be removed from our initial unit. (Another way of saying this is to consider how many times our standard length can fit into our length to be measured.)
- When we are left with something smaller than our standard unit, we break the standard unit up into equal fractions and start again.

- We can move are standard from one place to another without it changing.
- We can say when two lengths are equal.
- The physical object we are measuring actually has a well-defined length.
- The length we are measuring can be fit with a reasonable number of pieces of our measuring stick. (If we have to divide it, it divides without being destroyed.)

Point 1 is usually OK. We only have to worry about it when the properties of space change (as they do in general relativity). Point 2 only works if the quantity we are trying to represent with a number from our standard is "of the same type" (whatever that means). If you think about trying to measure an area by fitting a standard length against and counting the number of times it fits in you will have a problem, since our standard length has a length but no width. You could fit an infinite number of them in an area.

Points 3 and 4 limit what we can do. If we are measuring the height of a door and the door has been cut by a power saw and not sanded, there may be grooves on the edges of the door of a few millimeters or more. We could not define "the height of the door" to better than that accuracy. Even if it were sanded very smooth, the door is made up of atoms -- as is our standard measuring stick. We could not break our standard measuring stick into pieces less than a nanometer in size in order to count how many fit against the door. Nor could we measure the distance to the moon with a measuring stick. We need to find other operational definitions to extend our measurement to these regimes.

University of Maryland | Physics Department | Physics 374 Home |
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This page prepared by Edward F. Redish

Department of Physics

University of Maryland

College Park, MD 20742

Phone: (301) 405-6120

Email: redish@umd.edu

Last revision 2. September, 2005.