You are on page 1of 1

GeoE 308

Hydrogeology

Spring, 1998

Notes on significant figures and dimensional analysis


Significant figure rules (see p. 22-23 of Fetter):
# sig. figs
17
2
NOTE: difference between measured vs.
17.00
4
hypothetical quantity. If I ask you, how
0.017
2
many feet in 1 mile? The correct answer
0.0170
3
is 5280, not 5000. This is because it is
1700
2, 3 or 4
understood that the mile is a
hypothetically
1.7
x 103
2
exact mile, not a measured mile, and so the
1.700 x 103
4
sig-fig rules no longer apply. On the other
hand, if I measure the distance between two points on a map as 1.6 miles and ask the same
question, the answer is (1.6 miles x 5280 ft/mile) = 8448, rounded to 8400 feet.

For multiplication/division, round answer off to the # of sig. figs. in the least precise
measured variable.
Example: (20.5 x 1200)/3 = 8,000 (or 8 x 103 , or 8 E+03)

For addition/subtraction, the answer should not have any sig. digits to the right of the
last sig. digit of any of the measured variables.
Example: 17 + 2.35 + 0.0725 = 19 (not 19.4225)

Carry all sig. figs through a multi-step calculation, and then round off at the end. For
this class, it is OK to report your answer to 1 extra significant figure. This avoids
unnecessary round-off errors.

Dimensional analysis (see p. 22-23 of Fetter)


Many problems can be solved merely by setting up proper conversion ratios, and then
making sure your units cancel. Common abbreviations: L = length, M = mass, T = time.
EXAMPLE: If the flow in an irrigation ditch is 12 liter/minute, how many acre-feet of
irrigation is possible in one year?
First, do a dimensional analysis to see if the two units are compatible:
liters/minute = L3/T
acre-feet/year = L2 L/T = L3/T ... ok
12 L 0.0353 ft 3
1 acre
60 min 24 hr 365 day
51112
.
acre ft
x
x
x
x

2 x
min
L
hr
day
year
year
43560 ft

= 5.1 acreft/year