Skip to Content
OpenStax Logo
University Physics Volume 1

1.6 Significant Figures

University Physics Volume 11.6 Significant Figures
Buy book
  1. Preface
  2. Unit 1. Mechanics
    1. 1 Units and Measurement
      1. Introduction
      2. 1.1 The Scope and Scale of Physics
      3. 1.2 Units and Standards
      4. 1.3 Unit Conversion
      5. 1.4 Dimensional Analysis
      6. 1.5 Estimates and Fermi Calculations
      7. 1.6 Significant Figures
      8. 1.7 Solving Problems in Physics
      9. Chapter Review
        1. Key Terms
        2. Key Equations
        3. Summary
        4. Conceptual Questions
        5. Problems
        6. Additional Problems
        7. Challenge Problems
    2. 2 Vectors
      1. Introduction
      2. 2.1 Scalars and Vectors
      3. 2.2 Coordinate Systems and Components of a Vector
      4. 2.3 Algebra of Vectors
      5. 2.4 Products of Vectors
      6. Chapter Review
        1. Key Terms
        2. Key Equations
        3. Summary
        4. Conceptual Questions
        5. Problems
        6. Additional Problems
        7. Challenge Problems
    3. 3 Motion Along a Straight Line
      1. Introduction
      2. 3.1 Position, Displacement, and Average Velocity
      3. 3.2 Instantaneous Velocity and Speed
      4. 3.3 Average and Instantaneous Acceleration
      5. 3.4 Motion with Constant Acceleration
      6. 3.5 Free Fall
      7. 3.6 Finding Velocity and Displacement from Acceleration
      8. Chapter Review
        1. Key Terms
        2. Key Equations
        3. Summary
        4. Conceptual Questions
        5. Problems
        6. Additional Problems
        7. Challenge Problems
    4. 4 Motion in Two and Three Dimensions
      1. Introduction
      2. 4.1 Displacement and Velocity Vectors
      3. 4.2 Acceleration Vector
      4. 4.3 Projectile Motion
      5. 4.4 Uniform Circular Motion
      6. 4.5 Relative Motion in One and Two Dimensions
      7. Chapter Review
        1. Key Terms
        2. Key Equations
        3. Summary
        4. Conceptual Questions
        5. Problems
        6. Additional Problems
        7. Challenge Problems
    5. 5 Newton's Laws of Motion
      1. Introduction
      2. 5.1 Forces
      3. 5.2 Newton's First Law
      4. 5.3 Newton's Second Law
      5. 5.4 Mass and Weight
      6. 5.5 Newton’s Third Law
      7. 5.6 Common Forces
      8. 5.7 Drawing Free-Body Diagrams
      9. Chapter Review
        1. Key Terms
        2. Key Equations
        3. Summary
        4. Conceptual Questions
        5. Problems
        6. Additional Problems
        7. Challenge Problems
    6. 6 Applications of Newton's Laws
      1. Introduction
      2. 6.1 Solving Problems with Newton’s Laws
      3. 6.2 Friction
      4. 6.3 Centripetal Force
      5. 6.4 Drag Force and Terminal Speed
      6. Chapter Review
        1. Key Terms
        2. Key Equations
        3. Summary
        4. Conceptual Questions
        5. Problems
        6. Additional Problems
        7. Challenge Problems
    7. 7 Work and Kinetic Energy
      1. Introduction
      2. 7.1 Work
      3. 7.2 Kinetic Energy
      4. 7.3 Work-Energy Theorem
      5. 7.4 Power
      6. Chapter Review
        1. Key Terms
        2. Key Equations
        3. Summary
        4. Conceptual Questions
        5. Problems
        6. Additional Problems
        7. Challenge Problems
    8. 8 Potential Energy and Conservation of Energy
      1. Introduction
      2. 8.1 Potential Energy of a System
      3. 8.2 Conservative and Non-Conservative Forces
      4. 8.3 Conservation of Energy
      5. 8.4 Potential Energy Diagrams and Stability
      6. 8.5 Sources of Energy
      7. Chapter Review
        1. Key Terms
        2. Key Equations
        3. Summary
        4. Conceptual Questions
        5. Problems
        6. Additional Problems
    9. 9 Linear Momentum and Collisions
      1. Introduction
      2. 9.1 Linear Momentum
      3. 9.2 Impulse and Collisions
      4. 9.3 Conservation of Linear Momentum
      5. 9.4 Types of Collisions
      6. 9.5 Collisions in Multiple Dimensions
      7. 9.6 Center of Mass
      8. 9.7 Rocket Propulsion
      9. Chapter Review
        1. Key Terms
        2. Key Equations
        3. Summary
        4. Conceptual Questions
        5. Problems
        6. Additional Problems
        7. Challenge Problems
    10. 10 Fixed-Axis Rotation
      1. Introduction
      2. 10.1 Rotational Variables
      3. 10.2 Rotation with Constant Angular Acceleration
      4. 10.3 Relating Angular and Translational Quantities
      5. 10.4 Moment of Inertia and Rotational Kinetic Energy
      6. 10.5 Calculating Moments of Inertia
      7. 10.6 Torque
      8. 10.7 Newton’s Second Law for Rotation
      9. 10.8 Work and Power for Rotational Motion
      10. Chapter Review
        1. Key Terms
        2. Key Equations
        3. Summary
        4. Conceptual Questions
        5. Problems
        6. Additional Problems
        7. Challenge Problems
    11. 11 Angular Momentum
      1. Introduction
      2. 11.1 Rolling Motion
      3. 11.2 Angular Momentum
      4. 11.3 Conservation of Angular Momentum
      5. 11.4 Precession of a Gyroscope
      6. Chapter Review
        1. Key Terms
        2. Key Equations
        3. Summary
        4. Conceptual Questions
        5. Problems
        6. Additional Problems
        7. Challenge Problems
    12. 12 Static Equilibrium and Elasticity
      1. Introduction
      2. 12.1 Conditions for Static Equilibrium
      3. 12.2 Examples of Static Equilibrium
      4. 12.3 Stress, Strain, and Elastic Modulus
      5. 12.4 Elasticity and Plasticity
      6. Chapter Review
        1. Key Terms
        2. Key Equations
        3. Summary
        4. Conceptual Questions
        5. Problems
        6. Additional Problems
        7. Challenge Problems
    13. 13 Gravitation
      1. Introduction
      2. 13.1 Newton's Law of Universal Gravitation
      3. 13.2 Gravitation Near Earth's Surface
      4. 13.3 Gravitational Potential Energy and Total Energy
      5. 13.4 Satellite Orbits and Energy
      6. 13.5 Kepler's Laws of Planetary Motion
      7. 13.6 Tidal Forces
      8. 13.7 Einstein's Theory of Gravity
      9. Chapter Review
        1. Key Terms
        2. Key Equations
        3. Summary
        4. Conceptual Questions
        5. Problems
        6. Additional Problems
        7. Challenge Problems
    14. 14 Fluid Mechanics
      1. Introduction
      2. 14.1 Fluids, Density, and Pressure
      3. 14.2 Measuring Pressure
      4. 14.3 Pascal's Principle and Hydraulics
      5. 14.4 Archimedes’ Principle and Buoyancy
      6. 14.5 Fluid Dynamics
      7. 14.6 Bernoulli’s Equation
      8. 14.7 Viscosity and Turbulence
      9. Chapter Review
        1. Key Terms
        2. Key Equations
        3. Summary
        4. Conceptual Questions
        5. Problems
        6. Additional Problems
        7. Challenge Problems
  3. Unit 2. Waves and Acoustics
    1. 15 Oscillations
      1. Introduction
      2. 15.1 Simple Harmonic Motion
      3. 15.2 Energy in Simple Harmonic Motion
      4. 15.3 Comparing Simple Harmonic Motion and Circular Motion
      5. 15.4 Pendulums
      6. 15.5 Damped Oscillations
      7. 15.6 Forced Oscillations
      8. Chapter Review
        1. Key Terms
        2. Key Equations
        3. Summary
        4. Conceptual Questions
        5. Problems
        6. Additional Problems
        7. Challenge Problems
    2. 16 Waves
      1. Introduction
      2. 16.1 Traveling Waves
      3. 16.2 Mathematics of Waves
      4. 16.3 Wave Speed on a Stretched String
      5. 16.4 Energy and Power of a Wave
      6. 16.5 Interference of Waves
      7. 16.6 Standing Waves and Resonance
      8. Chapter Review
        1. Key Terms
        2. Key Equations
        3. Summary
        4. Conceptual Questions
        5. Problems
        6. Additional Problems
        7. Challenge Problems
    3. 17 Sound
      1. Introduction
      2. 17.1 Sound Waves
      3. 17.2 Speed of Sound
      4. 17.3 Sound Intensity
      5. 17.4 Normal Modes of a Standing Sound Wave
      6. 17.5 Sources of Musical Sound
      7. 17.6 Beats
      8. 17.7 The Doppler Effect
      9. 17.8 Shock Waves
      10. Chapter Review
        1. Key Terms
        2. Key Equations
        3. Summary
        4. Conceptual Questions
        5. Problems
        6. Additional Problems
        7. Challenge Problems
  4. A | Units
  5. B | Conversion Factors
  6. C | Fundamental Constants
  7. D | Astronomical Data
  8. E | Mathematical Formulas
  9. F | Chemistry
  10. G | The Greek Alphabet
  11. Answer Key
    1. Chapter 1
    2. Chapter 2
    3. Chapter 3
    4. Chapter 4
    5. Chapter 5
    6. Chapter 6
    7. Chapter 7
    8. Chapter 8
    9. Chapter 9
    10. Chapter 10
    11. Chapter 11
    12. Chapter 12
    13. Chapter 13
    14. Chapter 14
    15. Chapter 15
    16. Chapter 16
    17. Chapter 17
  12. Index

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:
  • Determine the correct number of significant figures for the result of a computation.
  • Describe the relationship between the concepts of accuracy, precision, uncertainty, and discrepancy.
  • Calculate the percent uncertainty of a measurement, given its value and its uncertainty.
  • Determine the uncertainty of the result of a computation involving quantities with given uncertainties.

Figure 1.11 shows two instruments used to measure the mass of an object. The digital scale has mostly replaced the double-pan balance in physics labs because it gives more accurate and precise measurements. But what exactly do we mean by accurate and precise? Aren’t they the same thing? In this section we examine in detail the process of making and reporting a measurement.

Figure a shows an old rusted double-pan balance with a standard mass on one pan. Figure b shows a modern digital analytical balance.
Figure 1.11 (a) A double-pan mechanical balance is used to compare different masses. Usually an object with unknown mass is placed in one pan and objects of known mass are placed in the other pan. When the bar that connects the two pans is horizontal, then the masses in both pans are equal. The “known masses” are typically metal cylinders of standard mass such as 1 g, 10 g, and 100 g. (b) Many mechanical balances, such as double-pan balances, have been replaced by digital scales, which can typically measure the mass of an object more precisely. A mechanical balance may read only the mass of an object to the nearest tenth of a gram, but many digital scales can measure the mass of an object up to the nearest thousandth of a gram. (credit a: modification of work by Serge Melki; credit b: modification of work by Karel Jakubec)

Accuracy and Precision of a Measurement

Science is based on observation and experiment—that is, on measurements. Accuracy is how close a measurement is to the accepted reference value for that measurement. For example, let’s say we want to measure the length of standard printer paper. The packaging in which we purchased the paper states that it is 11.0 in. long. We then measure the length of the paper three times and obtain the following measurements: 11.1 in., 11.2 in., and 10.9 in. These measurements are quite accurate because they are very close to the reference value of 11.0 in. In contrast, if we had obtained a measurement of 12 in., our measurement would not be very accurate. Notice that the concept of accuracy requires that an accepted reference value be given.

The precision of measurements refers to how close the agreement is between repeated independent measurements (which are repeated under the same conditions). Consider the example of the paper measurements. The precision of the measurements refers to the spread of the measured values. One way to analyze the precision of the measurements is to determine the range, or difference, between the lowest and the highest measured values. In this case, the lowest value was 10.9 in. and the highest value was 11.2 in. Thus, the measured values deviated from each other by, at most, 0.3 in. These measurements were relatively precise because they did not vary too much in value. However, if the measured values had been 10.9 in., 11.1 in., and 11.9 in., then the measurements would not be very precise because there would be significant variation from one measurement to another. Notice that the concept of precision depends only on the actual measurements acquired and does not depend on an accepted reference value.

The measurements in the paper example are both accurate and precise, but in some cases, measurements are accurate but not precise, or they are precise but not accurate. Let’s consider an example of a GPS attempting to locate the position of a restaurant in a city. Think of the restaurant location as existing at the center of a bull’s-eye target and think of each GPS attempt to locate the restaurant as a black dot. In Figure 1.12(a), we see the GPS measurements are spread out far apart from each other, but they are all relatively close to the actual location of the restaurant at the center of the target. This indicates a low-precision, high-accuracy measuring system. However, in Figure 1.12(b), the GPS measurements are concentrated quite closely to one another, but they are far away from the target location. This indicates a high-precision, low-accuracy measuring system.

Two target patterns, each consisting of three white concentric rings on a red background. Figure a, labeled “High accuracy, low precision,” shows four black points, spread out along the circumference of the innermost circle. Figure b, labeled “Low accuracy, high precision,” shows four black points all clustered very near each other between the middle and outer circles.
Figure 1.12 A GPS attempts to locate a restaurant at the center of the bull’s-eye. The black dots represent each attempt to pinpoint the location of the restaurant. (a) The dots are spread out quite far apart from one another, indicating low precision, but they are each rather close to the actual location of the restaurant, indicating high accuracy. (b) The dots are concentrated rather closely to one another, indicating high precision, but they are rather far away from the actual location of the restaurant, indicating low accuracy. (credit a and credit b: modification of works by "DarkEvil"/Wikimedia Commons)

Accuracy, Precision, Uncertainty, and Discrepancy

The precision of a measuring system is related to the uncertainty in the measurements whereas the accuracy is related to the discrepancy from the accepted reference value. Uncertainty is a quantitative measure of how much your measured values deviate from one another. There are many different methods of calculating uncertainty, each of which is appropriate to different situations. Some examples of how discrepancies in data can be represented include taking half the range (that is, the biggest less the smallest) or finding the standard deviation of the measurements. Discrepancy (or “measurement error”) is the difference between the measured value and a given standard or expected value. If the measurements are not very precise, then the uncertainty of the values is high. If the measurements are not very accurate, then the discrepancy of the values is high.

Recall our example of measuring paper length; we obtained measurements of 11.1 in., 11.2 in., and 10.9 in., and the accepted value was 11.0 in. We might average the three measurements to say our best guess is 11.1 in.; in this case, our discrepancy is 11.1 – 11.0 = 0.1 in., which provides a quantitative measure of accuracy. We might calculate the uncertainty in our best guess by using half of the range of our measured values: 0.15 in. Then we would say the length of the paper is 11.1 in. plus or minus 0.15 in. The uncertainty in a measurement, A, is often denoted as δA (read “delta A”), so the measurement result would be recorded as A ± δA. Returning to our paper example, the measured length of the paper could be expressed as 11.1 ± 0.15 in. Since the discrepancy of 0.1 in. is less than the uncertainty of 0.15 in., we might say the measured value agrees with the accepted reference value to within experimental uncertainty.

Some factors that contribute to uncertainty in a measurement include the following:

  • Limitations of the measuring device
  • The skill of the person taking the measurement
  • Irregularities in the object being measured
  • Any other factors that affect the outcome (highly dependent on the situation)

In our example, such factors contributing to the uncertainty could be the smallest division on the ruler is 1/16 in., the person using the ruler has bad eyesight, the ruler is worn down on one end, or one side of the paper is slightly longer than the other. At any rate, the uncertainty in a measurement must be calculated to quantify its precision. If a reference value is known, it makes sense to calculate the discrepancy as well to quantify its accuracy.

Percent uncertainty

Another method of expressing uncertainty is as a percent of the measured value. If a measurement A is expressed with uncertainty δA, the percent uncertainty is defined as

Percent uncertainty=δAA×100%.Percent uncertainty=δAA×100%.

Example 1.7

Calculating Percent Uncertainty: A Bag of Apples A grocery store sells 5-lb bags of apples. Let’s say we purchase four bags during the course of a month and weigh the bags each time. We obtain the following measurements:

  • Week 1 weight: 4.8 lb
  • Week 2 weight: 5.3 lb
  • Week 3 weight: 4.9 lb
  • Week 4 weight: 5.4 lb

We then determine the average weight of the 5-lb bag of apples is 5.1 ± 0.3 lb from using half of the range. What is the percent uncertainty of the bag’s weight?

StrategyFirst, observe that the average value of the bag’s weight, A, is 5.1 lb. The uncertainty in this value, δA,δA, is 0.3 lb. We can use the following equation to determine the percent uncertainty of the weight:

Percent uncertainty=δAA×100%.Percent uncertainty=δAA×100%.
(1.1)

Solution Substitute the values into the equation:

Percent uncertainty=δAA×100%=0.3lb5.1lb×100%=5.1%6%.Percent uncertainty=δAA×100%=0.3lb5.1lb×100%=5.1%6%.

SignificanceWe can conclude the average weight of a bag of apples from this store is 5.1 lb ± 6%. Notice the percent uncertainty is dimensionless because the units of weight in δA=0.2δA=0.2 lb canceled those in A = 5.1 lb when we took the ratio.

Check Your Understanding 1.8

A high school track coach has just purchased a new stopwatch. The stopwatch manual states the stopwatch has an uncertainty of ±0.05 s. Runners on the track coach’s team regularly clock 100-m sprints of 11.49 s to 15.01 s. At the school’s last track meet, the first-place sprinter came in at 12.04 s and the second-place sprinter came in at 12.07 s. Will the coach’s new stopwatch be helpful in timing the sprint team? Why or why not?

Uncertainties in calculations

Uncertainty exists in anything calculated from measured quantities. For example, the area of a floor calculated from measurements of its length and width has an uncertainty because the length and width have uncertainties. How big is the uncertainty in something you calculate by multiplication or division? If the measurements going into the calculation have small uncertainties (a few percent or less), then the method of adding percents can be used for multiplication or division. This method states the percent uncertainty in a quantity calculated by multiplication or division is the sum of the percent uncertainties in the items used to make the calculation. For example, if a floor has a length of 4.00 m and a width of 3.00 m, with uncertainties of 2% and 1%, respectively, then the area of the floor is 12.0 m2 and has an uncertainty of 3%. (Expressed as an area, this is 0.36 m2 [12.0m2×0.0312.0m2×0.03], which we round to 0.4 m2 since the area of the floor is given to a tenth of a square meter.)

Precision of Measuring Tools and Significant Figures

An important factor in the precision of measurements involves the precision of the measuring tool. In general, a precise measuring tool is one that can measure values in very small increments. For example, a standard ruler can measure length to the nearest millimeter whereas a caliper can measure length to the nearest 0.01 mm. The caliper is a more precise measuring tool because it can measure extremely small differences in length. The more precise the measuring tool, the more precise the measurements.

When we express measured values, we can only list as many digits as we measured initially with our measuring tool. For example, if we use a standard ruler to measure the length of a stick, we may measure it to be 36.7 cm. We can’t express this value as 36.71 cm because our measuring tool is not precise enough to measure a hundredth of a centimeter. It should be noted that the last digit in a measured value has been estimated in some way by the person performing the measurement. For example, the person measuring the length of a stick with a ruler notices the stick length seems to be somewhere in between 36.6 cm and 36.7 cm, and he or she must estimate the value of the last digit. Using the method of significant figures, the rule is that the last digit written down in a measurement is the first digit with some uncertainty. To determine the number of significant digits in a value, start with the first measured value at the left and count the number of digits through the last digit written on the right. For example, the measured value 36.7 cm has three digits, or three significant figures. Significant figures indicate the precision of the measuring tool used to measure a value.

Zeros

Special consideration is given to zeros when counting significant figures. The zeros in 0.053 are not significant because they are placeholders that locate the decimal point. There are two significant figures in 0.053. The zeros in 10.053 are not placeholders; they are significant. This number has five significant figures. The zeros in 1300 may or may not be significant, depending on the style of writing numbers. They could mean the number is known to the last digit or they could be placeholders. So 1300 could have two, three, or four significant figures. To avoid this ambiguity, we should write 1300 in scientific notation as 1.3×103,1.3×103, 1.30×103,1.30×103, or 1.300×103,1.300×103, depending on whether it has two, three, or four significant figures. Zeros are significant except when they serve only as placeholders.

Significant figures in calculations

When combining measurements with different degrees of precision, the number of significant digits in the final answer can be no greater than the number of significant digits in the least-precise measured value. There are two different rules, one for multiplication and division and the other for addition and subtraction.

  1. For multiplication and division, the result should have the same number of significant figures as the quantity with the least number of significant figures entering into the calculation. For example, the area of a circle can be calculated from its radius using A = πr2. Let’s see how many significant figures the area has if the radius has only two—say, r = 1.2 m. Using a calculator with an eight-digit output, we would calculate
    A=πr2=(3.1415927)×(1.2m)2=4.5238934m2.A=πr2=(3.1415927)×(1.2m)2=4.5238934m2.

    But because the radius has only two significant figures, it limits the calculated quantity to two significant figures, or
    A=4.5m2,A=4.5m2,

    although π is good to at least eight digits.
  2. For addition and subtraction, the answer can contain no more decimal places than the least-precise measurement. Suppose we buy 7.56 kg of potatoes in a grocery store as measured with a scale with precision 0.01 kg, then we drop off 6.052 kg of potatoes at your laboratory as measured by a scale with precision 0.001 kg. Then, we go home and add 13.7 kg of potatoes as measured by a bathroom scale with precision 0.1 kg. How many kilograms of potatoes do we now have and how many significant figures are appropriate in the answer? The mass is found by simple addition and subtraction:
    7.56kg6.052kg+13.7kg15.208kg=15.2kg.7.56kg6.052kg+13.7kg15.208kg=15.2kg.

    Next, we identify the least-precise measurement: 13.7 kg. This measurement is expressed to the 0.1 decimal place, so our final answer must also be expressed to the 0.1 decimal place. Thus, the answer is rounded to the tenths place, giving us 15.2 kg.

Significant figures in this text

In this text, most numbers are assumed to have three significant figures. Furthermore, consistent numbers of significant figures are used in all worked examples. An answer given to three digits is based on input good to at least three digits, for example. If the input has fewer significant figures, the answer will also have fewer significant figures. Care is also taken that the number of significant figures is reasonable for the situation posed. In some topics, particularly in optics, more accurate numbers are needed and we use more than three significant figures. Finally, if a number is exact, such as the two in the formula for the circumference of a circle, C = 2πr, it does not affect the number of significant figures in a calculation. Likewise, conversion factors such as 100 cm/1 m are considered exact and do not affect the number of significant figures in a calculation.

Citation/Attribution

Want to cite, share, or modify this book? This book is Creative Commons Attribution License 4.0 and you must attribute OpenStax.

Attribution information
  • If you are redistributing all or part of this book in a print format, then you must include on every physical page the following attribution:
    Access for free at https://openstax.org/books/university-physics-volume-1/pages/1-introduction
  • If you are redistributing all or part of this book in a digital format, then you must include on every digital page view the following attribution:
    Access for free at https://openstax.org/books/university-physics-volume-1/pages/1-introduction
Citation information

© Sep 19, 2016 OpenStax. Textbook content produced by OpenStax is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution License 4.0 license. The OpenStax name, OpenStax logo, OpenStax book covers, OpenStax CNX name, and OpenStax CNX logo are not subject to the Creative Commons license and may not be reproduced without the prior and express written consent of Rice University.