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MECE 300 MECHANICAL MEASUREMENTS

SUPPLEMENTAL COURSE MATERIAL


SIGNIFICANT DIGITS (SIG FIGS)
Objective:
The purpose of this document is to provide guidance on the use of significant digits in MecE
300. When noted on Examinations and Assignments, please use the following guidelines to
determine the appropriate number of significant digits to report a final numerical answer and to
perform intermediate calculations.
Assumptions:
This document assumes that students are familiar with the concept of significant digits and can
determine the number of significant digits in numeric magnitudes. Examples are given below:
1. Zeros before the first non-zero digit are not significant: eg. 0.023 has 2 sig figs
2. Zeros between non-zero digits are significant: eg. 203 has 3 sig figs
3. Zeros after non-zero digits are significant if they follow a decimal point: eg. 2.30 has 3
sig figs
4. Zeros after non-zero digits that do not follow a decimal are, in general practice, not
considered significant: eg. 2,000 has 1 sig fig because it could be expressed equally as 2 x
103 using scientific notation.
5. Exact whole numbers (1,2,3,. etc) are considered to have an infinite number of sig figs
Determining appropriate numbers of sig figs in basic arithmetic operations:
a) Multiplication, division, trigonometric functions etc.
When performing calculations with multiplication, division, and evaluating trigonometric
functions, the final numerical result should have the same number of sig figs as the
number with the least sig figs being used in the calculation:
eg. 4.300 x sin(2.0): the numerical result would have 2 sig figs
eg. 2 x 4.300 = 8.600 would have 4 sig figs because 2 has an infinite number of sig figs
and 4.300 has 4 sig figs
b) Addition and subtraction
In calculations using addition and/or subtraction, the number of decimal places (not sig
figs) in the final numerical results should be the same as the least number of decimal
places in any of the numbers being added or subtracted.
eg. 3.1 + 4.56: the numerical result would have 1 decimal place

c) Intermediate calculations
If your calculation requires a number of intermediate calculations, be sure to record at
least one extra sig fig than is necessary for the final answer in all intermediate steps. The
purpose of keeping extra sig figs is to avoid round-off error.
d) Other considerations
The most common mistake in applying sig figs is reporting too many significant digits in
a final result in an effort to avoid round-off error. Another common mistake is keeping
less sig figs in intermediate steps than in reporting the final numerical result.
To determine the correct number of sig figs to retain in a final result where both
multiplication and addition (for example) are involved, simply perform the calculation
using the correct Order of Operations for arithmetic:
1.
2.
3.
4.
5.
6.

Brackets
Exponents
Division
Multiplication
Addition
Subtraction