Physunits Toolbox Documentation
Physunits Toolbox Documentation
About the Physunits toolbox
The Physunits toolbox is an attempt to confer dimensional
‘awareness’ to the MATLAB environment. The motivation for
this, as well as a suggested way to go about it, are explained in
Automated computation and consistency checking of physical
dimensions and units in scientific programs, Petty, G.W.,
Software - Practice and Experience, (Volume 31, Issue 11, 19 June
The author of the same has also made available for download a
FORTRAN 90 module that implements this idea in the FORTRAN language.
The module and paper can be downloaded from
The Physunits toolbox is based on the above module, and expands
it, while trying to adhere consistently to MATLAB standards and
How it works
The PHYSUNITS toolbox works by defining the PREAL class, with a
PREAL data type and overloaded functions to support it. An object of
type PREAL represents a physical quantity. It has two fields:
value - The numerical
value, which must be a numerical type with zero imaginary part.
units - A vector of 7 numbers, representing the
physical dimensions associated with value.
The format for the units vector is [length,
mass, time, temperature, electric
current, amount of matter, luminous intensity],
but this format is usually transparent to the user, who defines her
variables via an interface structure.
The overloaded functions and operators are then responsible for
enforcing consistency in all operations involving PREAL variables. In
Addition of two variables is only
possible if they have the same dimensions.
Exponents must be dimensionless.
Transcendental functions accept
dimensionless arguments only.
Binary logical operations can only be performed on variables
having the same dimensions.
Using the PREAL class
The PREAL class constructor accepts two arguments: a scalar real
number, and a vector of 7 real numbers; and creates a PREAL object
using these arguments for the value and units fields. This is a
cumbersome and error prone method but, fortunately, the user will
rarely need to use it directly. Instead she calls the function
setUnits, which returns an interface structure that greatly
facilitates the definition and use of dimensioned variables.
The interface structure contains predefined variables of type
PREAL, representing the basic SI units as well as many other units,
derived units, constants of nature, parameters, etc. Get this
structure by calling the setUnits
function. Once this interface structure is present in your workspace,
you can the use the predefined variables. Define new PREAL variables
by multiplying a predefined PREAL by a DOUBLE.
Tip: In Matlab version 7 (R14) or
higher use the auto completion feature to find the names of
predefined variables. If you have the output of the setUnits
function in the variable y,
type y in the command line
followed by a period (.), then hit TAB to get a list of all variables
contained in y. Type the
first characters in a variable name and hit TAB again to narrow down
In the command window, get the interface structure by calling
Create PREAL variables by multiplying double literals with the
predefined unit variables:
12 m kg s^-2
Operations on PREAL types follow the rules of physical dimensions:
0.012 m^2 kg s^-2
You can use the double function to convert a preal variable
to a double. (This function simply discards the units field
of the variable.)
fprintf('Work done is %g joules.\n',double(F*dr))
Work done is 0.012 joules.
Attempting an illegal operation results in an error:
Error using ==> preal.plus
Attempt to add dimensionally inconsistent preals
Notice that, as a bonus, the physunits toolbox can be used as a unit
fprintf('One joule equals %g ergs.\n',double(si.joule/si.erg))
fprintf('One dyne equals %g Newtons.\n',double(si.dyne/si.newton))
One joule equals 1e+007 ergs.
One dyne equals 1e-005 Newtons.
A short sample program that demonstrates the PREAL class can be
found in ...\physunits\iceball.m.
Extending the Physunits toolbox
Anyone who will use the Physunits toolbox will undoubtedly
discover that new capabilities need to be added. More than likely,
these will include more functions that need to be overloaded for the
PREAL class. If you get an error message from MATLAB complaining that
function so-and-so is not defined for class PREAL, then you should
simply define it for the PREAL class by putting an m-file with the
same name in the @preal directory. For example, the function
sin is defined for the PREAL class. Take a look in the file
sin.m that resides in the @preal directory to see
how it is defined. With this function as a reference it should not be
difficult to define the asin function also for the PREAL
class should you find it necessary.
Another improvement you are likely to need is the addition of more
predefined variables used often in your work. This may be done by
editing the setUnits function, and adding the required
definitions at the end of the file.
Disabling the Physunits toolbox
Using physical units in calculations is helpful and natural for
scientists and engineers, but the need to use a user-defined type
instead of the standard DOUBLE class comes with a penalty on
performance. Long calculations involving PREAL variables may become
too slow. A way to ‘switch off’ the dimensional awareness
of the code is therefore desirable. Converting all PREAL variables
into doubles with the double function is not practical.
Instead, use the physunits function with the 'off' flag at
the beginning of your code.
This causes all subsequent variables defined as PREALs in the
code to be treated as regular double variables. The rest of the code
should run exactly as it would were it written without any use of
The recommended practice is therefore to use PREAL variables with
physical dimensions throughout the code, enjoying the benefits of
automatic consistency checks, dimensional tracking, and dimensional
display, during development and debugging. When the code is ready for
the ‘operational’ run, a one-line command at the
beginning will restore performance and efficiency to optimal.