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Uncertainty and Significant Figures

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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.

ex.: 46 758 has 5 significant figures

17 has 2 significant figures

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

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.

•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

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

•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

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