The basic quantities in Physics are those of mass, length, time,
electric current, temperature, luminous intensity and amount of a substance. Other related
quantities such as energy, acceleration and so on can be derived from combinations of these
basic quantities and are therefore known as derived quantities.

The way in which the
derived quantity is related to the basic quantity can be shown by the dimensions of the
quantity. In considering dimensions we will restrict ourselves to those used in mechanics and
properties of matter only.

The dimensions of mass are written as [M]

The
dimensions of length are written as [L]

The dimensions of time are written as
[T]

Note the square brackets round the letter to show that we are dealing with the
dimensions of a quantity.

The dimensions of any other quantity will involve one or
more of these basic dimensions. For instance, a measurement of volume of an object will involve the
product of three lengths and the dimensions of volume are therefore [L]^{3}.

In
the same way a measurement of velocity requires a length divided by a time, and so the
dimensions of velocity are [L][T]^{-1}.

The table below shows the dimensions
of various common quantities in mechanics.

Quantity |
Dimensions |

area | [L]^{2} |

volume | [L]^{3} |

velocity | [L][T]^{-1} |

acceleration | [L][T]^{-2} |

force | [M][L][T]^{-2} |

energy | [M][L]^{2}[T]^{-2} |

power | [M][L]^{2}[T]^{-3} |

pressure | [M][L]^{-1}[T]^{-2} |

momentum | [M][L][T]^{-1} |

Dimensions have two important uses in Physics to check equations and to derive equations.

The dimensions of the quantities of each side of an equation must match: those on the left-hand side must equal those on the right (remember the classic problem of not being able to give the total when five apples are added to three oranges, or two pigs to three sheep and one cow).

For example, consider the equation: s =
ut + ˝ at^{2}

Writing this in dimensional form we have:

[L] = [L][T]^{-
1}[T] + [L][T]^{-2}[T]^{2} therefore [L] = [L] + [L]

This proves the
equation, since the length on the left-hand side of the equation is obtained by adding
together the two lengths on the right-hand side.

Notice that ˝ is a pure number
having no dimensions and is therefore omitted in the dimensional equation.

A further
example is shown below.

Show that the equation for impulse Ft = mv - mu is dimensionally correct.

Writing this in dimensional form we have:

[M][L][T]

Therefore [M][L][T]

If we have some idea upon which quantities a further quantity might depend, then we can use the method of dimensional analysis to obtain an equation relating the relevant variables. You should appreciate that since numbers are dimensionless we cannot use this method to find these in equations, however.

Consider the oscillation of a simple pendulum. We will assume that the period of the pendulum (t) depends in some way on the following quantities:

(i) the mass of the pendulum bob (m)

(ii) the length of the string of the pendulum (L), and

(iii) the gravitational intensity (g).

We therefore write the equation as: t = km

where x, y and z are unknown powers and k is a dimensionless constant. Writing this in dimensional form gives:

[T] = [M]

Equating the indices for M, L and T on both sides of the equation we have:

M: 0 = x L: 0 = y+z T: 1 = -2z

Therefore: x = 0, y= ˝ and z = - ˝

The original equation therefore becomes:

t = k (L/g)

which is what we would expect for a simple pendulum. Dimensional analysis does not give us the value of the dimensionless constant k which can be shown by other methods to be 2p in this case.

Further examples of the use of dimensional analysis to derive equations are found in the discussions in other areas of the site

(i) viscosity - Poiseuille's equation and Stokes law

(ii) Wave velocity on a stretched string

1. Use the method of dimensional analysis to deduce equations for the following:

(a) the period of oscillation of a mass suspended on a vertical helical spring

(b) the veIocity of waves on a stretched string

(c) the frictional drag on a sphere falling through a liquid

(d) the rate at which liquid flows through a pipe

2. Use the method of dimensional analysis to check the validity of the following equations:

(a) E = mc

(b) Energy stored in a wire = ˝EAe

(c) Escape velocity from a planet = 2Rg

(d) period of oscillation (T) of a floating cylinder with its axis vertical and length h immersed in a liquid of density d :

T = 2p[hd/g]

3. What are the dimensions for the following quantities:

(a) work

(b)energy

(c) power

(d) momentum

(e) impulse

(f) force

(g) coefficient of viscosity

(h) modulus of elasticity

(i) density

(j) coefficient of restitution