Computational models used in the estimation of thermodynamic quantities of large chemical systems often require approximate energy models that rely on parameterization and cancellation of errors to yield agreement with experimental measurements. In this work, we show how energy function errors propagate when computing statistical mechanics-derived thermodynamic quantities. Assuming that each microstate included in a statistical ensemble has a measurable amount of error in its calculated energy, we derive low-order expressions for the propagation of these errors in free energy, average energy, and entropy. Through gedanken experiments we show the expected behavior of these error propagation formulas on hypothetical energy surfaces. For very large microstate energy errors, these low-order formulas disagree with estimates from Monte Carlo simulations of error propagation. Hence, such simulations of error propagation may be required when using poor potential energy functions. Propagated systematic errors predicted by these methods can be removed from computed quantities, while propagated random errors yield uncertainty estimates. Importantly, we find that end-point free energy methods maximize random errors and that local sampling of potential energy wells decreases random error significantly. Hence, end-point methods should be avoided in energy computations and should be replaced by methods that incorporate local sampling. The techniques described herein will be used in future work involving the calculation of free energies of biomolecular processes, where error corrections are expected to yield improved agreement with experiment.
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