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Significant Figures

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General Guidelines for Rounding of Numbers

Whenever we employ a number in a computation, we must have assurance that it can be used with

confidence. For example, Figure 1 depicts a speedometer and odometer from an automobile. Visual

inspection of the speedometer indicates that the car is travelling between 48 and 49 km/h. Because

the indicator is higher than the midpoint between the markers on the gauge, we can say with

assume that the car is traveling at approximately 49 km/h. We have confidence in this result because

two or more reasonable individuals reading this gauge would arrive at the same conclusion.

However, let us say that we insist that the speed be estimated to one decimal place. For this case,

one person might say 48.8, whereas another might say 48.9 km/h. Therefore, because of the limits

of this instrument, only the first two digits can be used with confidence. Estimates of the third digit

(or higher) must be viewed as approximations. It would be ludicrous to claim, on the basis of this

speedometer, that the automobile is traveling at 48.8642138 km/h. In contrast, the odometer

provides up to six certain digits. From Figure 1, we can conclude that the car has travelled slightly

less than 87,324.5 km during its lifetime. In this case, the seventh digit (and higher) is uncertain.

The concept of a significant figure, or digit, has been developed to formally designate the reliability

of a numerical value. The significant digits of a number are those that can be used with confidence.

They correspond to the number of certain digits plus one estimated digit. For example, the

speedometer and the odometer in Figure 1 yield readings of three and seven significant figures,

respectively. For the speedometer, the two certain digits are 48. It is conventional to set the

estimated digit at one-half of the smallest scale division on the measurement device. Thus the

speedometer reading would consist of the three significant figures: 48.5. In a similar fashion, the

odometer would yield a seven-significant-figure reading of 87,324.45.

Page 1 of 4

some cases can lead to confusion. For example, zeros are not always significant figures because they

may be necessary just to locate a decimal point. The numbers 0.00001845, 0.0001845, and 0.001845

all have four significant figures, (i.e. 1.845 10-5, 1.845 10-4, and 1.845 10-3, respectively).

Similarly, when trailing zeros are used in large numbers, it is not clear how many, if any, of the zeros

are significant. For example, at face value the number 45,300 may have three, four, or five

significant digits, depending on whether the zeros are known with confidence. Such uncertainty can

be resolved by using scientific notation, where 4.53 104, 4.530 104, 4.5300 104 designate that

the number is known to three, four, and five significant figures, respectively.

The concept of significant figures has two important implications for our study of numerical

methods:

1. Numerical methods yield approximate results. We must, therefore, develop criteria to

specify how confident we are in our approximate result. One way to do this is in terms of

significant figures. For example, we might decide that our approximation is acceptable if it is

correct to four significant figures.

2. Although quantities such as , e, or 7 represent specific quantities, they cannot be

expressed exactly by a limited number of digits. For example,

= 3.141592653589793238462643...

ad infinitum. Because computers retain only a finite number of significant figures, such

numbers can never be represented exactly. The omission of the remaining significant figures

is called round-off error.

The following procedure is used to round off number during numerical computations:

1. If the round-off is done by retaining the i digits, the last retained digit (the ith one) is

increased by one if the first discarded digit is 6 or greater

i.e.:

3.233601 is 3.234 (round off to four significant digits)

2. If the last retained digit is odd and the first discarded digit is 5 or 5 followed by zeros, the

last retained digit is increased by one.

i.e.:

2.013501 is 2.014 (round off to four significant digits)

200.550 is 200.6 (round off to four significant digits)

200.65 is 200.6 (4th digit is even, followed by 5 or 5 and zero)

3. In all other cases, the last retained digit is unaltered.

4. During addition or subtraction, the rounding off of the final result is done such that the

position of the last retained digit is the same as that of the most significant last retained digit

in the original numbers that were added or subtracted.

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Example:

x=

3.3 2.868 =

0.432

= 0.4

y = 5.72 107 + 5.6 104 3.91 104

= 0.00572 104 + 5.6 104 3.91 104

= 5.60572 104 3.91 104

= 1.69572 104

= 1.7 104

5. During multiplication or division, the round-off the final result is done such that the number

of significant digits is equal to the smallest number of significant digits used in the original

number.

Example:

=

x 0.0839 7.4

= 0.62086

= 0.62

=

=

y 932

0.48765 1911.20680816

= 1910

6. During multiple arithmetic operation, the operations are performed one at a time as

indicated by the parentheses:

(multiplication or division) (multiplication or division)

(addition or subtraction) / (addition or subtraction)

Example:

203.6 {3.4 10 } ) + ({9.214 10 } 3.92 )

(

4

x=

692.24104

36.11888104

= 72.62 103

= 73 103

6

y=

2

3.456

10

+ 6.9732

3.456102 + 0.069732=

102 3.525732102

712 106

3.526 102

= 201.928530913 108

=

= 202 108

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In each step of the operation, the results are rounded as indicated in guidelines 4 and 5 before

proceeding to the next operation, instead of only rounding the final result.

References

1. SINGIRESU S. RAO (2002): Applied Numerical Methods for Engineers and Scientists, ISBN

0-13-089480-X, Prentice Hall.

2. STEVEN C. CHAPRA, RAYMOND P. CANALE (2006): Numerical Methods for Engineers, 5ed,

ISBN 007-124429-8, McGraw-Hill.

Page 4 of 4

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