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what is significant digits?

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depend on the number of significant digits in the given data, as

discussed in the rules below.Approximate calculations (order-ofmagnitude estimates) always result in answers with only one or two

significant digits.

When are Digits Significant?

Non-zero digits are always significant. Thus, 22 has two significant

digits, and 22.3 has three significant digits.

With zeroes, the situation is more complicated:

a. Zeroes placed before other digits are not significant; 0.046 has

two significant digits.

b. Zeroes placed between other digits are always significant; 4009

kg has four significant digits.

c. Zeroes placed after other digits but behind a decimal point are

significant; 7.90 has three significant digits.

d. Zeroes at the end of a number are significant only if they are

behind a decimal point as in (c). Otherwise, it is impossible to tell

if they are significant. For example, in the number 8200, it is not

clear if the zeroes are significant or not. The number of

significant digits in 8200 is at least two, but could be three or

four. To avoid uncertainty, use scientific notation to place

significant zeroes behind a decimal point:

8.200 103 has four significant digits

8.20 103 has three significant digits

Significant Digits in Multiplication, Division, Trig. functions,

etc.

In a calculation involving multiplication, division, trigonometric

functions, etc., the number of significant digits in an answer should

equal the least number of significant digits in any one of the numbers

being multiplied, divided etc.

Thus in evaluating sin(kx), where k = 0.097 m-1 (two significant digits)

and x = 4.73 m (three significant digits), the answer should have two

significant digits.

Note that whole numbers have essentially an unlimited number of

significant digits. As an example, if a hair dryer uses 1.2 kW of power,

then 2 identical hairdryers use 2.4 kW:

1.2 kW {2 sig. dig.} 2 {unlimited sig. dig.} = 2.4 kW {2 sig. dig.}

Significant Digits in Addition and Subtraction

When quantities are being added or subtracted, the number of decimal

places (not significant digits) in the answer should be the same as the

least number of decimal places in any of the numbers being added or

subtracted.

Example:

5.67 J (two decimal places)

1.1 J (one decimal place)

0.9378 J (four decimal place)

7.7 J (one decimal place)

When doing multi-step calculations, keep at least one more significant

digit in intermediate results than needed in your final answer.

For instance, if a final answer requires two significant digits, then carry

at least three significant digits in calculations. If you round-off all your

intermediate answers to only two digits, you are discarding the

information contained in the third digit, and as a result the second digit

in your final answer might be incorrect. (This phenomenon is known as

"round-off error.")

SIGNIFICANT DIGITS

The number of significant digits in an answer to a calculation will

depend on the number of significant digits in the given data, as

discussed in the rules below.Approximate calculations (order-ofmagnitude estimates) always result in answers with only one or two

significant digits.

When are Digits Significant?

Non-zero digits are always significant. Thus, 22 has two significant

digits, and 22.3 has three significant digits.

With zeroes, the situation is more complicated:

a. Zeroes placed before other digits are not significant; 0.046 has

two significant digits.

b. Zeroes placed between other digits are always significant; 4009

kg has four significant digits.

c. Zeroes placed after other digits but behind a decimal point are

significant; 7.90 has three significant digits.

behind a decimal point as in (c). Otherwise, it is impossible to tell

if they are significant. For example, in the number 8200, it is not

clear if the zeroes are significant or not. The number of

significant digits in 8200 is at least two, but could be three or

four. To avoid uncertainty, use scientific notation to place

significant zeroes behind a decimal point:

8.200 103 has four significant digits

8.20 103 has three significant digits

8.2 103 has two significant digits

Significant Digits in Multiplication, Division, Trig. functions,

etc.

In a calculation involving multiplication, division, trigonometric

functions, etc., the number of significant digits in an answer should

equal the least number of significant digits in any one of the numbers

being multiplied, divided etc.

Thus in evaluating sin(kx), where k = 0.097 m-1 (two significant digits)

and x = 4.73 m (three significant digits), the answer should have two

significant digits.

Note that whole numbers have essentially an unlimited number of

significant digits. As an example, if a hair dryer uses 1.2 kW of power,

then 2 identical hairdryers use 2.4 kW:

1.2 kW {2 sig. dig.} 2 {unlimited sig. dig.} = 2.4 kW {2 sig. dig.}

Significant Digits in Addition and Subtraction

places (not significant digits) in the answer should be the same as the

least number of decimal places in any of the numbers being added or

subtracted.

Example:

5.67 J (two decimal places)

1.1 J (one decimal place)

0.9378 J (four decimal place)

7.7 J (one decimal place)

Keep One Extra Digit in Intermediate Answers

When doing multi-step calculations, keep at least one more significant

digit in intermediate results than needed in your final answer.

For instance, if a final answer requires two significant digits, then carry

at least three significant digits in calculations. If you round-off all your

intermediate answers to only two digits, you are discarding the

information contained in the third digit, and as a result the second digit

in your final answer might be incorrect. (This phenomenon is known as

"round-off error.")

Significant Figure Example Problem

Three students weigh an item using different scales. These are the

values they report:

a. 20.03 g

b. 20.0 g

c. 0.2003 kg

measurement?

Solution

a. 4.

b. 3. The zero after the decimal point is significant because it indicates

that the item was weighed to the nearest 0.1 g.

c. 4. The zeros at the left are not significant. They are only present

because the mass was written in kilograms rather than in grams. The

values '20.03 g' and '0.02003 kg' represent the same quantities.

Answer

In addition to the solution presented above, be advised that the correct

answers to have been obtained very quickly by expressing the masses

in scientific (exponential) notation:

20.03 g = 2.003 x 101 g (4 significant figures)

20.0 g = 2.00 x 101 g (3 significant figures)

0.2003 kg = 2.003 x 10-1 kg (4 significant figures)

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