Significant figures

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Significant figures, also referred to as significant digits or sig figs, are specific digits within a number written in positional notation that carry both reliability and necessity in conveying a particular quantity. When presenting the outcome of a measurement (such as length, pressure, volume, or mass), if the number of digits exceeds what the measurement instrument can resolve, only the number of digits within the resolution's capability are dependable and therefore considered significant.

For instance, if a length measurement yields 114.8 mm, using a ruler with the smallest interval between marks at 1 mm, the first three digits (1, 1, and 4, representing 114 mm) are certain and constitute significant figures. Further, digits that are uncertain yet meaningful are also included in the significant figures. In this example, the last digit (8, contributing 0.8 mm) is likewise considered significant despite its uncertainty. Therefore, this measurement contains four significant figures.

Another example involves a volume measurement of 2.98 L with an uncertainty of ± 0.05 L. The actual volume falls between 2.93 L and 3.03 L. Even if certain digits are not completely known, they are still significant if they are meaningful, as they indicate the actual volume within an acceptable range of uncertainty. In this case, the actual volume might be 2.94 L or possibly 3.02 L, so all three digits are considered significant. Thus, there are three significant figures in this example.

The following types of digits are not considered significant:

A zero after a decimal (e.g., 1.0) is significant, and care should be used when appending such a decimal of zero. Thus, in the case of 1.0, there are two significant figures, whereas 1 (without a decimal) has one significant figure.

Among a number's significant digits, the most significant digit is the one with the greatest exponent value (the leftmost significant digit/figure), while the least significant digit is the one with the lowest exponent value (the rightmost significant digit/figure). For example, in the number "123" the "1" is the most significant digit, representing hundreds (102), while the "3" is the least significant digit, representing ones (100).

To avoid conveying a misleading level of precision, numbers are often rounded. For instance, it would create false precision to present a measurement as 12.34525 kg when the measuring instrument only provides accuracy to the nearest gram (0.001 kg). In this case, the significant figures are the first five digits (1, 2, 3, 4, and 5) from the leftmost digit, and the number should be rounded to these significant figures, resulting in 12.345 kg as the accurate value. The rounding error (in this example, 0.00025 kg = 0.25 g) approximates the numerical resolution or precision. Numbers can also be rounded for simplicity, not necessarily to indicate measurement precision, such as for the sake of expediency in news broadcasts.

Significance arithmetic encompasses a set of approximate rules for preserving significance through calculations. More advanced scientific rules are known as the propagation of uncertainty.

Radix 10 (base-10, decimal numbers) is assumed in the following. (See unit in the last place for extending these concepts to other bases.)

Identifying significant figures

Rules to identify significant figures in a number

Digits in light blue are significant figures; those in black are not.

Identifying the significant figures in a number requires knowing which digits are meaningful, which requires knowing the resolution with which the number is measured, obtained, or processed. For example, if the measurable smallest mass is 0.001 g, then in a measurement given as 0.00234 g the "4" is not useful and should be discarded, while the "3" is useful and should often be retained.

Ways to denote significant figures in an integer with trailing zeros

The significance of trailing zeros in a number not containing a decimal point can be ambiguous. For example, it may not always be clear if the number 1300 is precise to the nearest unit (just happens coincidentally to be an exact multiple of a hundred) or if it is only shown to the nearest hundreds due to rounding or uncertainty. Many conventions exist to address this issue. However, these are not universally used and would only be effective if the reader is familiar with the convention:

As the conventions above are not in general use, the following more widely recognized options are available for indicating the significance of number with trailing zeros:

Rounding to significant figures

Rounding to significant figures is a more general-purpose technique than rounding to n digits, since it handles numbers of different scales in a uniform way. For example, the population of a city might only be known to the nearest thousand and be stated as 52,000, while the population of a country might only be known to the nearest million and be stated as 52,000,000. The former might be in error by hundreds, and the latter might be in error by hundreds of thousands, but both have two significant figures (5 and 2). This reflects the fact that the significance of the error is the same in both cases, relative to the size of the quantity being measured.

To round a number to n significant figures:

  1. If the n + 1 digit is greater than 5 or is 5 followed by other non-zero digits, add 1 to the n digit. For example, if we want to round 1.2459 to 3 significant figures, then this step results in 1.25.
  2. If the n + 1 digit is 5 not followed by other digits or followed by only zeros, then rounding requires a tie-breaking rule. For example, to round 1.25 to 2 significant figures:
    • Round half away from zero (also known as "5/4") rounds up to 1.3. This is the default rounding method implied in many disciplines if the required rounding method is not specified.
    • Round half to even, which rounds to the nearest even number. With this method, 1.25 is rounded down to 1.2. If this method applies to 1.35, then it is rounded up to 1.4. This is the method preferred by many scientific disciplines, because, for example, it avoids skewing the average value of a long list of values upwards.
  3. For an integer in rounding, replace the digits after the n digit with zeros. For example, if 1254 is rounded to 2 significant figures, then 5 and 4 are replaced to 0 so that it will be 1300. For a number with the decimal point in rounding, remove the digits after the n digit. For example, if 14.895 is rounded to 3 significant figures, then the digits after 8 are removed so that it will be 14.9.

In financial calculations, a number is often rounded to a given number of places. For example, to two places after the decimal separator for many world currencies. This is done because greater precision is immaterial, and usually it is not possible to settle a debt of less than the smallest currency unit.

In UK personal tax returns, income is rounded down to the nearest pound, whilst tax paid is calculated to the nearest penny.

As an illustration, the decimal quantity 12.345 can be expressed with various numbers of significant figures or decimal places. If insufficient precision is available then the number is rounded in some manner to fit the available precision. The following table shows the results for various total precision at two rounding ways (N/A stands for Not Applicable).

Precision Rounded to
significant figures
Rounded to
decimal places
6 12.3450 12.345000
5 12.345 12.34500
4 12.34 or 12.35 12.3450
3 12.3 12.345
2 12 12.34 or 12.35
1 10 12.3
0 12

Another example for 0.012345. (Remember that the leading zeros are not significant.)

Precision Rounded to
significant figures
Rounded to
decimal places
7 0.01234500 0.0123450
6 0.0123450 0.012345
5 0.012345 0.01234 or 0.01235
4 0.01234 or 0.01235 0.0123
3 0.0123 0.012
2 0.012 0.01
1 0.01 0.0
0 0

The representation of a non-zero number x to a precision of p significant digits has a numerical value that is given by the formula:

10 n ⋅ round ⁡ ( x 10 n ) {\displaystyle 10^{n}\cdot \operatorname {round} \left({\frac {x}{10^{n}}}\right)} where n = ⌊ log 10 ⁡ ( | x | ) ⌋ + 1 − p {\displaystyle n=\lfloor \log _{10}(|x|)\rfloor +1-p}

which may need to be written with a specific marking as detailed above to specify the number of significant trailing zeros.

Writing uncertainty and implied uncertainty

Significant figures in writing uncertainty

It is recommended for a measurement result to include the measurement uncertainty such as x b e s t ± σ x {\displaystyle x_{best}\pm \sigma _{x}} , where xbest and σx are the best estimate and uncertainty in the measurement respectively. xbest can be the average of measured values and σx can be the standard deviation or a multiple of the measurement deviation. The rules to write x b e s t ± σ x {\displaystyle x_{best}\pm \sigma _{x}} are:

Implied uncertainty

Uncertainty may be implied by the last significant figure if it is not explicitly expressed. The implied uncertainty is ± the half of the minimum scale at the last significant figure position. For example, if the mass of an object is reported as 3.78 kg without mentioning uncertainty, then ± 0.005 kg measurement uncertainty may be implied. If the mass of an object is estimated as 3.78 ± 0.07 kg, so the actual mass is probably somewhere in the range 3.71 to 3.85 kg, and it is desired to report it with a single number, then 3.8 kg is the best number to report since its implied uncertainty ± 0.05 kg gives a mass range of 3.75 to 3.85 kg, which is close to the measurement range. If the uncertainty is a bit larger, i.e. 3.78 ± 0.09 kg, then 3.8 kg is still the best single number to quote, since if "4 kg" was reported then a lot of information would be lost.

If there is a need to write the implied uncertainty of a number, then it can be written as x ± σ x {\displaystyle x\pm \sigma _{x}} with stating it as the implied uncertainty (to prevent readers from recognizing it as the measurement uncertainty), where x and σx are the number with an extra zero digit (to follow the rules to write uncertainty above) and the implied uncertainty of it respectively. For example, 6 kg with the implied uncertainty ± 0.5 kg can be stated as 6.0 ± 0.5 kg.

Arithmetic

As there are rules to determine the significant figures in directly measured quantities, there are also guidelines (not rules) to determine the significant figures in quantities calculated from these measured quantities.

Significant figures in measured quantities are most important in the determination of significant figures in calculated quantities with them. A mathematical or physical constant (e.g., π in the formula for the area of a circle with radius r as πr2) has no effect on the determination of the significant figures in the result of a calculation with it if its known digits are equal to or more than the significant figures in the measured quantities used in the calculation. An exact number such as ½ in the formula for the kinetic energy of a mass m with velocity v as ½mv2 has no bearing on the significant figures in the calculated kinetic energy since its number of significant figures is infinite (0.500000...).

The guidelines described below are intended to avoid a calculation result more precise than the measured quantities, but it does not ensure the resulted implied uncertainty close enough to the measured uncertainties. This problem can be seen in unit conversion. If the guidelines give the implied uncertainty too far from the measured ones, then it may be needed to decide significant digits that give comparable uncertainty.

Multiplication and division

For quantities created from measured quantities via multiplication and division, the calculated result should have as many significant figures as the least number of significant figures among the measured quantities used in the calculation. For example,

with one, two, and one significant figures respectively. (2 here is assumed not an exact number.) For the first example, the first multiplication factor has four significant figures and the second has one significant figure. The factor with the fewest or least significant figures is the second one with only one, so the final calculated result should also have one significant figure.

Exception

For unit conversion, the implied uncertainty of the result can be unsatisfactorily higher than that in the previous unit if this rounding guideline is followed; For example, 8 inch has the implied uncertainty of ± 0.5 inch = ± 1.27 cm. If it is converted to the centimeter scale and the rounding guideline for multiplication and division is followed, then 20.32 cm ≈ 20 cm with the implied uncertainty of ± 5 cm. If this implied uncertainty is considered as too overestimated, then more proper significant digits in the unit conversion result may be 20.32 cm ≈ 20. cm with the implied uncertainty of ± 0.5 cm.

Another exception of applying the above rounding guideline is to multiply a number by an integer, such as 1.234 × 9. If the above guideline is followed, then the result is rounded as 1.234 × 9.000.... = 11.106 ≈ 11.11. However, this multiplication is essentially adding 1.234 to itself 9 times such as 1.234 + 1.234 + … + 1.234 so the rounding guideline for addition and subtraction described below is more proper rounding approach. As a result, the final answer is 1.234 + 1.234 + … + 1.234 = 11.106 = 11.106 (one significant digit increase).

Addition and subtraction

For quantities created from measured quantities via addition and subtraction, the last significant figure position (e.g., hundreds, tens, ones, tenths, hundredths, and so forth) in the calculated result should be the same as the leftmost or largest digit position among the last significant figures of the measured quantities in the calculation. For example,

with the last significant figures in the ones place, tenths place, ones place, and thousands place respectively. (2 here is assumed not an exact number.) For the first example, the first term has its last significant figure in the thousandths place and the second term has its last significant figure in the ones place. The leftmost or largest digit position among the last significant figures of these terms is the ones place, so the calculated result should also have its last significant figure in the ones place.

The rule to calculate significant figures for multiplication and division are not the same as the rule for addition and subtraction. For multiplication and division, only the total number of significant figures in each of the factors in the calculation matters; the digit position of the last significant figure in each factor is irrelevant. For addition and subtraction, only the digit position of the last significant figure in each of the terms in the calculation matters; the total number of significant figures in each term is irrelevant. However, greater accuracy will often be obtained if some non-significant digits are maintained in intermediate results which are used in subsequent calculations.

Logarithm and antilogarithm

The base-10 logarithm of a normalized number (i.e., a × 10b with 1 ≤ a < 10 and b as an integer), is rounded such that its decimal part (called mantissa) has as many significant figures as the significant figures in the normalized number.

When taking the antilogarithm of a normalized number, the result is rounded to have as many significant figures as the significant figures in the decimal part of the number to be antiloged.

Transcendental functions

If a transcendental function f ( x ) {\displaystyle f(x)} (e.g., the exponential function, the logarithm, and the trigonometric functions) is differentiable at its domain element x, then its number of significant figures (denoted as "significant figures of f ( x ) {\displaystyle f(x)} ") is approximately related with the number of significant figures in x (denoted as "significant figures of x") by the formula

( s i g n i f i c a n t   f i g u r e s   o f   f ( x ) ) ≈ ( s i g n i f i c a n t   f i g u r e s   o f   x ) − log 10 ⁡ ( | d f ( x ) d x x f ( x ) | ) {\displaystyle {\rm {(significant~figures~of~f(x))}}\approx {\rm {(significant~figures~of~x)}}-\log _{10}\left(\left\vert {{\frac {df(x)}{dx}}{\frac {x}{f(x)}}}\right\vert \right)} ,

where | d f ( x ) d x x f ( x ) | {\displaystyle \left\vert {{\frac {df(x)}{dx}}{\frac {x}{f(x)}}}\right\vert } is the condition number.

Round only on the final calculation result

When performing multiple stage calculations, do not round intermediate stage calculation results; keep as many digits as is practical (at least one more digit than the rounding rule allows per stage) until the end of all the calculations to avoid cumulative rounding errors while tracking or recording the significant figures in each intermediate result. Then, round the final result, for example, to the fewest number of significant figures (for multiplication or division) or leftmost last significant digit position (for addition or subtraction) among the inputs in the final calculation.

Estimating an extra digit

When using a ruler, initially use the smallest mark as the first estimated digit. For example, if a ruler's smallest mark is 0.1 cm, and 4.5 cm is read, then it is 4.5 (±0.1 cm) or 4.4 cm to 4.6 cm as to the smallest mark interval. However, in practice a measurement can usually be estimated by eye to closer than the interval between the ruler's smallest mark, e.g. in the above case it might be estimated as between 4.51 cm and 4.53 cm.

It is also possible that the overall length of a ruler may not be accurate to the degree of the smallest mark, and the marks may be imperfectly spaced within each unit. However assuming a normal good quality ruler, it should be possible to estimate tenths between the nearest two marks to achieve an extra decimal place of accuracy. Failing to do this adds the error in reading the ruler to any error in the calibration of the ruler.

Estimation in statistic

When estimating the proportion of individuals carrying some particular characteristic in a population, from a random sample of that population, the number of significant figures should not exceed the maximum precision allowed by that sample size.

Relationship to accuracy and precision in measurement

Traditionally, in various technical fields, "accuracy" refers to the closeness of a given measurement to its true value; "precision" refers to the stability of that measurement when repeated many times. Thus, it is possible to be "precisely wrong". Hoping to reflect the way in which the term "accuracy" is actually used in the scientific community, there is a recent standard, ISO 5725, which keeps the same definition of precision but defines the term "trueness" as the closeness of a given measurement to its true value and uses the term "accuracy" as the combination of trueness and precision. (See the accuracy and precision article for a full discussion.) In either case, the number of significant figures roughly corresponds to precision, not to accuracy or the newer concept of trueness.

In computing

Computer representations of floating-point numbers use a form of rounding to significant figures (while usually not keeping track of how many), in general with binary numbers. The number of correct significant figures is closely related to the notion of relative error (which has the advantage of being a more accurate measure of precision, and is independent of the radix, also known as the base, of the number system used).

Electronic calculators supporting a dedicated significant figures display mode are relatively rare.

Among the calculators to support related features are the Commodore M55 Mathematician (1976) and the S61 Statistician (1976), which support two display modes, where DISP+n will give n significant digits in total, while DISP+.+n will give n decimal places.

The Texas Instruments TI-83 Plus (1999) and TI-84 Plus (2004) families of graphical calculators support a Sig-Fig Calculator mode in which the calculator will evaluate the count of significant digits of entered numbers and display it in square brackets behind the corresponding number. The results of calculations will be adjusted to only show the significant digits as well.

For the HP 20b/30b-based community-developed WP 34S (2011) and WP 31S (2014) calculators significant figures display modes SIG+n and SIG0+n (with zero padding) are available as a compile-time option. The SwissMicros DM42-based community-developed calculators WP 43C (2019) / C43 (2022) / C47 (2023) support a significant figures display mode as well.

See also

References

  1. ^ a b c Lower, Stephen (2021-03-31). "Significant Figures and Rounding". Chemistry - LibreTexts.
  2. ^ Chemistry in the Community; Kendall-Hunt:Dubuque, IA 1988
  3. ^ Giving a precise definition for the number of correct significant digits is not a straightforward matter: see Higham, Nicholas (2002). Accuracy and Stability of Numerical Algorithms (PDF) (2nd ed.). SIAM. pp. 3–5.
  4. ^ "y-cruncher validation file"
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  12. ^ "Significant Figure Rules". Penn State University.
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  14. ^ de Oliveira Sannibale, Virgínio (2001). "Measurements and Significant Figures (Draft)" (PDF). Freshman Physics Laboratory. California Institute of Technology, Physics Mathematics And Astronomy Division. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2013-06-18.
  15. ^ "Measurements". slc.umd.umich.edu. University of Michigan. Archived from the original on 2017-07-09. Retrieved 2017-07-03. As a general rule you should attempt to read any scale to one tenth of its smallest division by visual interpolation.
  16. ^ Experimental Electrical Testing. Newark, NJ: Weston Electrical Instruments Co. 1914. p. 9. Retrieved 2019-01-14. Experimental Electrical Testing..
  17. ^ commodore m55 Mathematician Owners Manual (PDF). Palo Alto, California, USA / Luton, UK: Commodore Business Machines Inc. / Mitchells Printers (Luton) Limited. 201318-01. Archived (PDF) from the original on 2023-09-30. Retrieved 2023-09-30. (1+151+1 pages)
  18. ^ commodore s61 Statistician Owners Handbook. Palo Alto, California, USA: Commodore Business Machines Inc. Archived from the original on 2023-09-30. Retrieved 2023-09-30. (2+114 pages)
  19. ^ "Solution 30190: Using The Significant Numbers Calculator From The Science Tools App on the TI-83 Plus and TI-84 Plus Family of Graphing Calculators". Knowledge Base. Texas Instruments. 2023. Archived from the original on 2023-09-16. Retrieved 2023-09-30.
  20. ^ Bit (2014-11-15). "Bit's WP 34S and 31S patches and custom binaries (version: r3802 20150805-1)". MoHPC - The Museum of HP Calculators. Archived from the original on 2023-09-24. Retrieved 2023-09-24.
  21. ^ Bit (2015-02-07). " Unique display mode: significant figures". MoHPC - The Museum of HP Calculators. Archived from the original on 2023-09-24. Retrieved 2023-09-24.
  22. ^ Mostert, Jaco "Jaymos" (2020-02-11). "Changes from the WP43S to the WP43C" (PDF). v047. Archived (PDF) from the original on 2023-10-01. Retrieved 2023-10-01. (30 pages)

Further reading

External links