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UNCERTAINTY & SIGNIFICANT FIGURES

Significant figures
The number of significant figures is the number of digits whose values are known with certainty.

Significant figures are important to consider when doing calculations using numbers obtained from
measurements. It will allow you to ROUND your answers properly. Sig figs always indicate precision.

1) All non-zero numbers (1-9) are always significant


ex.: 46 758 has 5 significant figures
17 has 2 significant figures

2) All zeros between non-zero numbers are always significant


ex.: 706 has 3 significant figures ---> 7 and 6 are significant, therefore making the 0 also significant
6008 has 4 significant figures ---> 6 and 8 are significant, therefore making the 0's in between
also significant

3) All zeros which are simultaneously to the right of the decimal point and at the end of the
number are always significant
ex.: 900.00 has 3 significant figures ---> .00 obeys the first part of the rule whereas the 00. obeys
the second part of the rule
23.0 has 3 significant figures

4) All zeros used for spacing the decimal point are not significant
• Zeros at the right of a large number are not significant
ex.: 6500 has 2 significant figures ---> 00 used for spacing, it doesn't follow rule 2 either
A helpful tip, use scientific notation, 6500 can be expressed as 6.5*10^3 where 6.5 is significant
and 10^3 is irrelevant (not significant)
• Zeros at the left of a small number are not significant
ex.: 0.0035 has 2 significant figures
Once again, use scientific notation, 3.5*10^-3 where 3.5 is significant and 10^-3 is irrelevant (not
significant)

5) Numbers that are not measurements (ex. constant in formula or values that have been
counted) are basically ignored when we decide
how many significant figures we need to round to
ex.: acceleration due to gravity: 9.8m/s^2 ---> is not significant since acceleration is always
constant in formula
ex.: π ---> always constant in a formula

Rule for adding and subtracting with significant figures


When adding or subtracting, perform the operation as usual, but restrict your result by rounding to
the least number of decimal places(d)
ex.: 32.3(1d)+51(0d)= 83.3 (we need 0 decimal places) therefore, 83
0.95(2d)+0.0153(4d)= 0.9653 (we need 2 decimal places) therefore, 0.97
Rule for multiplying and dividing with significant figures
When multiplying or dividing with numbers, round the answer to the least number of significant
figures(SF)
ex.: 0.0025(2SF)*3568(4SF)= 8.92 ( we need 2 significant figures) therefore, 8.9
6.35(3SF)*3098(4SF)*25(2SF)= 491 807.5 (we need 2 significant figures) therefore, 490 000
which can also be expressed as 4.9*10^5

Uncertainty
The uncertainty in a measurement is the result of the uncertainty of the instrument used or of the
skill of the person taking the measurement.

2 ways to express uncertainty:


•Absolute uncertainty which is expressed in the same units as the measurement itself.
ex.: 5.9cm ± 0.5cm ← uncertainty (1 decimal)

Measurement (1 decimal)
The uncertainty must have the same number of decimals as the measurement

•Relative uncertainty which is expressed as a percentage of the measurement


ex.: 5.9cm ± 5%
More useful if we are looking to compare the uncertainties of two measurements
Relative uncertainty = Absolute uncertainty x 100
Value of measurement
ex.: using 5.9cm ± 0.5cm ← absolute uncertainty

Value of Measurement

2 ways of determining the uncertainty of a measurement:


•The uncertainty is written on the instrument itself
ex.: On a balance, it may say that the mass indicated has an uncertainty of 0.01g
•When the instrument does not indicate a specific uncertainty, the uncertainty is equal to “one half
of the smallest measurement” provided by the instrument.

ex.: Read the volume of the liquid in the graduated cylinder. The volume is in millilitres.
Given: 32.0ml ---> volume increases by 1 ml, therefore,
32.0ml ± 0.5ml <--- half of the smallest measurement