You are on page 1of 4

Significant figures and rounding

Any measurement has one or more figure(s) that is read directly from the measuring
device, and (only) one figure that we estimate. All the figures are called significant figures.
When doing a mathematical operation on the measurement, one should round up the
number in the result to preserve the accuracy and/or the number of significant figures.
Addition and subtraction:
the result should be as accurate as the number that is the least accurate.
1. Put the numbers to be added one below the other so that decimal points 4.2 3
align. Do the math. 5.3
2. Look for the least accurate number: its last significant figure will be the + 6.0 22
rightmost of all numbers to be added. Put a vertical broken line behind it. 15.5 52
3. The numbers to the left of the broken line will be kept in the result. The
last digit will be rounded:
4. Check the number immediately behind the broken line. If it is 4 or below, 15.6
simply drop it, and all numbers behind it. If it is 5 or above, drop it and all
number behind it, but increase the last kept digit by one.
Multiplication and division:
the result cannot have more significant figures than the number that has the least.
15.6 x 1.2 x 8.0111 = 149.967792 = 150
3 sig.figs 2 sig.figs. 5 sig.figs. (calculator) 2 sig.figs. no decimal point!
Conversion factors
Any number can be multiplied or divided by one, because the result
of the operation does not alter the number. For example: 5 x 1 = 5 or 5 x 6 in = 5
Conversion factors use this principle. 6 in
Example 1: For instance, how many inches are there in 5.5 ft?
Two conversion factors can be 1 ft 12 in
Use identity: 1 ft = 12 in. and
written from the identity: 12 in 1 ft
Use the conversion factor that
has the desired unit in the 12 in
This conversion factor will cancel the
numerator, and the given unit 1 ft given unit (ft), leaving only the desired
in the denominator. unit (in) in the result.

12 in 5.5 ft x 12 in Assuming the number 5.5 ft is a

5.5 ft x = = 66 in
1 ft 1 ft measurement, it has two significant
figures. The result will also have two
significant figures, because the numbers in
By definition, When multiplying a number with a the conversion factor (12 and 1) are exact
1 ft = 12 in, so the fraction, the number multiplies with numbers. A mathematical operation with
ratio 12 in/1ft is numerator, while the denominator an exact number does not alter the
equal to 1 ! stays unchanged. number of significant figures.

Wrong conversion factor 1ft 5.5 ft2 = 0.46 ft2/in

leaves both units in the result: 5.5 ft x =
12 in 12 in
Conversion factors could be also To calculate either distance or If your average speed is
used with derived quantities. time to reach another place with 60 miles/hour, you will
Units of derived quantities contain given speed, you can use one of cover 60 miles in 1 hour.
products or ratios of base units: the two conversion factors. Use
the one that has the desired
Speed (velocity) distance quantity in the numerator 1 hour 60 miles
is expressed as: time and the given one in the or
60 miles 1 hour
Example 2a: What is the distance
between two places if takes 150 Since the units for time are not the same, another conversion
min to cover it driving at 65 mi/hr? factor is needed: 1 hour = 60 min. Calculator gives you
65 miles 1 hour 162.5 miles. You must
This is 150 min x x = 160 miles round it to two
1 hour 60 min
given to significant figures.
1st conversion factor: desired unit (distance) in 2nd conversion factor converts
numerator and given unit (time) in denominator. hours into minutes.

1 hour
Example 2b: What is the time needed 150 miles x 60 miles = 2.5 hours
to cover 150 miles at 60 mi/hr?

Example 3: What is the mass of 1 mL Hg ~ 13.6 g

Density is another derived quantity.
mass 12 mL of mercury (d=13.6 g/mL)?
1 mL
Its units are: 1 mL
volume 12 g x = 0.88 mL 13.6 g
13.6 g
That is, 1 mL of the substance Given quantity Conversion factor introduces mL and
weights its density in grams. cancels g.
Conversion of small-to-large unit and large-to-small unit
1 nm = 10-9 m
Example 4: Convert 1.6 nm into km. Known conversion factors:
1 km = 103 m
1 x 10-9 m 1 km = 1.6 x 10-9 x 10-3 km = 1.6 x 10-12 km
1.6 nm x x
1 nm 1 x 103 m
This is a step-by-step Exponent changes sign when When numbers with exponents
conversion that goes through going from one side of the multiply (or divide), the
meters. fraction line to the other. exponents add (or subtract).

1 pm = 10-12 m
Example 5: Convert 16 km into pm. Known conversion factors:
1 km = 103 m
1 x 103m 1 x 1012 pm
16 km x x = 16 x 103 x 1012 pm = 16 x 1015 pm = 1.6 x 1016 pm
1 km 1m
Incorrect scientific notation (pre-exponent must be 1 and < 10).
Move decimal to the left and increase the exponent!

Multiplication and division of fractions 1

1 3 1x3 3 2 1 x 4 1x4 4 = 2
= = =
x = = 3 2 3 2x3 6 3
2 4 2x4 8
The product of two fractions equals to the A ratio of two fractions is the same as the
product of the two numerators divided by the product of the first fraction with the reciprocal
product of two denominators. (inverse) value of the second!