1.4.2 Significant Figures

Every experimental measurement has some amount of uncertainty associated with it because of limitation of measuring instrument and the skill of the person making the measurement. For example, mass of an object is obtained using a platform balance and it comes out to be 9.4g.

On measuring the mass of this object on an analytical balance, the mass obtained is 9.4213g. The mass obtained by an analytical balance is slightly higher than the mass obtained by using a platform balance.

Therefore, digit 4 placed after decimal in the measurement by platform balance is uncertain. The uncertainty in the experimental or the calculated values is indicated by mentioning the number of significant figures. Significant figures are meaningful digits which are known with certainty plus one which is estimated or uncertain.

The uncertainty is indicated by writing the certain digits and the last uncertain digit. Thus, if we write a result as 11.2 mL, we say the 11 is certain and 2 is uncertain and the uncertainty would be +1 in the last digit. Unless otherwise stated, an uncertainty of +1 in the last digit is always understood.

There are certain rules for determining the number of significant figures. These are stated below:

  • All non-zero digits are significant. For example in 285 cm, there are three significant figures and in 0.25 mL, there are two significant figures.
  • Zeros preceding to first non-zero digit are not significant. Such zero indicates the position of decimal point. Thus, 0.03 has one significant figure and 0.0052 has two significant figures.
  • Zeros between two non-zero digits are significant. Thus, 2.005 has four significant figures.
  • Zeros at the end or right of a number are significant, provided they are on the right side of the decimal point. For example, 0.200 g has three significant figures. But, if otherwise, the terminal zeros are not significant if there is no decimal point.

For example, 100 has only one significant figure, but 100. has three significant figures and 100.0 has four significant figures. Such numbers are better represented in scientific notation. We can express the number 100 as 1×102 for one significant figure, 1.0×102 for two significant figures and 1.00×102 for three significant figures.

  • Counting the numbers of object, for example, 2 balls or 20 eggs, have infinite significant figures as these are exact numbers and can be represented by writing infinite number of zeros after placing a decimal i.e., 2 = 2.000000 or 20 = 20.000000.

In numbers written in scientific notation, all digits are significant e.g., 4.01×102 has three significant figures, and 8.256 × 10–3 has four significant figures. However, one would always like the results to be precise and accurate.

Precision and accuracy are often referred to while we talk about the measurement. Precision refers to the closeness of various measurements for the same quantity. However, accuracy is the agreement of a particular value to the true value of the result. For example, if the true value for a result is 2.00 g and student ‘A’ takes two measurements and reports the results as 1.95 g and 1.93 g.

These values are precise as they are close to each other but are not accurate. Another student ‘B’ repeats the experiment and obtains 1.94 g and 2.05 g as the results for two measurements. These observations are neither precise nor accurate. When the third student ‘C’ repeats these measurements and reports 2.01 g and 1.99 g as the result, these values are both precise and accurate.


Addition and Subtraction of Significant Figures

The result cannot have more digits to the right of the decimal point than either of the original numbers

12.11, 18.0, 1.012, 31.122

Here, 18.0 has only one digit after the decimal point and the result should be reported only up to one digit after the decimal point, which is 31.1.


Multiplication and Division of Significant Figures

In these operations, the result must be reported with no more significant figures as in the measurement with the few significant figures.

2.5×1.25 = 3.125

Since 2.5 has two significant figures, the result should not have more than two significant figures, thus, it is 3.1. While limiting the result to the required number of significant figures as done in the above mathematical operation, one has to keep in mind the following points for rounding off the numbers

  • If the rightmost digit to be removed is more than 5, the preceding number is increased by one. For example, 1.386. If we have to remove 6, we have to round it to 1.39.
  • If the rightmost digit to be removed is less than 5, the preceding number is not changed. For example, 4.334 if 4 is to be removed, then the result is rounded upto 4.33.
  • If the rightmost digit to be removed is 5, then the preceding number is not changed if it is an even number but it is increased by one if it is an odd number. For example, if 6.35 is to be rounded by removing 5, we have to increase 3 to 4 giving 6.4 as the result. However, if 6.25 is to be rounded off it is rounded off to 6.2.

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