Significant Figures are the number of digits that express the result to the true measured precision. For example, let's consider the number:
Determining the number of significant figures in this number is very simple. Start from the left and count the digits. In this case we find that there are 5 significant figures in this number.
Zeroes, however, are special digits. Sometimes they count as a significant digit, and sometimes they do not count and simply act as place holders. For example, the number
has 5 significant figures. The first two zeroes are not significant, they are just place holders. Therefore, when you're counting significant digits always start from the left and don't start counting until you come to the first non-zero digit, then everything after that counts, including zeroes!
A good way to avoid the problem of significant and non-significant zeroes it is to use scientific notation. For example,
|0.092067||is written||9.2067 x 10-2||and has 5 sig. figs.|
|0.092||is written||9.2 x 10-2||and has 2 sig. figs.|
|0.0920||is written||9.20 x 10-2||and has 3 sig. figs.|
When using scientific notation all digits, including zeroes, are significant.
In lab you were asked to weigh a crucible and cover three times. Let's say you measured12.4337 grams, 12.4334 grams, and 12.4335 grams.
These numbers have six significant figures, but clearly the precision is poorer for the last digit. If I calculate the average I get(12.4337 + 12.4334 + 12.4335) / 3 = 12.4335333333 ← calculator display
When I report this number it makes no sense to write down all the numbers on my calculator display because the average can have no more significant figures than what I get from a single measurement. We need to round off the number to the correct number of significant figures. In this case
12.4335333333 rounded to six sig. figs. is 12.4335
Generally, when insignificant digits are dropped from a number, the last digit retained should be rounded for the best accuracy. For example,
To determine how the last digit should be rounded, the digits to be dropped are turned into a decimal fraction. In the example above, our decimal fraction would be 0.333333. We can now follow the rules for rounding numbers:
Rules for Rounding numbers to the correct number of significant figures.
Let's look at some examples.
Round the numbers 9.473, 9.437, 9.450, and 9.750 to two significant figures.
These tutorials are sponsored by PhySy, the maker of PhySyCalc on iPhone, iPad, or Mac OS, and RMN on Mac OS.
PhySyCalc is the only calculator app that let's you use units directly in calculations.
RMN is an intuitive multi-dimensional signal processing app on MacOS.