By the end of this lesson and the next few, you should be able to:
- Define accuracy and precision
- Distinguish exact and uncertain numbers
- Correctly represent uncertainty in quantities using significant figures
- Apply proper rounding rules to computed quantities
Counting is the only type of measurement that is free from uncertainty, provided the number of objects being counted does not change while the counting process is underway. The result of such a counting measurement is an example of an exact number. If we count eggs in a carton, we know exactly how many eggs the carton contains. The numbers of defined quantities are also exact.
By definition, 1 foot is exactly 12 inches, 1 inch is exactly 2.54 centimeters, and 1 gram is exactly 0.001 kilogram. Quantities derived from measurements other than counting, however, are uncertain to varying extents due to practical limitations of the measurement process used.
Significant Figures in Measurement
The numbers of measured quantities, unlike defined or directly counted quantities, are not exact. To measure the volume of liquid in a graduated cylinder, you should make a reading at the bottom of the meniscus, the lowest point on the curved surface of the liquid.
Refer to the illustration in the figure above. The bottom of the meniscus in this case clearly lies between the 21 and 22 markings, meaning the liquid volume is certainly greater than 21 mL but less than 22 mL. The meniscus appears to be a bit closer to the 22-mL mark than to the 21-mL mark, and so a reasonable estimate of the liquid’s volume would be 21.6 mL.
In the number 21.6, then, the digits 2 and 1 are certain, but the 6 is an estimate. Some people might estimate the meniscus position to be equally distant from each of the markings and estimate the tenth-place digit as 5, while others may think it to be even closer to the 22-mL mark and estimate this digit to be 7. Note that it would be pointless to attempt to estimate a digit for the hundredths place, given that the tenths-place digit is uncertain.
In general, numerical scales such as the one on this graduated cylinder will permit measurements to one-tenth of the smallest scale division. The scale in this case has 1-mL divisions, and so volumes may be measured to the nearest 0.1 mL.
This concept holds true for all measurements, even if you do not actively make an estimate. If you place a US quarter coin on a standard electronic balance, you may obtain a reading of 6.72 g. The digits 6 and 7 are certain, and the 2 indicates that the mass of the quarter is likely between 6.71 and 6.73 grams.
The quarter weighs about 6.72 grams, with a nominal uncertainty in the measurement of ± 0.01 gram. If we weigh the quarter on a more sensitive balance, we may find that its mass is 6.723 g. This means its mass lies between 6.722 and 6.724 grams, an uncertainty of 0.001 gram.
Every measurement has some uncertainty, which depends on the device used (and the user’s ability). All of the digits in a measurement, including the uncertain last digit, are called significant figures or significant digits. Note that zero may be a measured value; for example, if you stand on a scale that shows weight to the nearest pound (lb) and it shows “120,” then the 1 (hundreds), 2 (tens) and 0 (ones) are all significant (measured) values.
Whenever you make a measurement properly, all the digits in the result are significant. But what if you were analyzing a reported value and trying to determine what is significant and what is not? Well, for starters, all nonzero digits are significant, and it is only zeros that require some thought. We will use the terms “leading,” “trailing,” and “captive” for the zeros and will consider how to deal with them.
Starting with the first nonzero digit on the left, count this digit and all remaining digits to the right. This is the number of significant figures in the measurement unless the last digit is a trailing zero lying to the left of the decimal point.
Captive zeros result from measurement and are therefore always significant. Leading zeros, however, are never significant—they merely tell us where the decimal point is located.
The leading zeros in this example are not significant. We could use exponential notation (as described in Appendix B) and express the number as 8.32407 × 10−3; then the number 8.32407 contains all of the significant figures, and 10−3 locates the decimal point.
The number of significant figures is uncertain in a number that ends with a zero to the left of the decimal point location. The zeros in the measurement 1,300 grams could be significant or they could simply indicate where the decimal point is located.
The ambiguity can be resolved with the use of exponential notation: 1.3 × 103 (two significant figures), 1.30 × 103 (three significant figures, if the tens place was measured), or 1.300 × 103 (four significant figures, if the ones place was also measured). In cases where only the decimal-formatted number is available, it is prudent to assume that all trailing zeros are not significant.
When determining significant figures, be sure to pay attention to reported values and think about the measurement and significant figures in terms of what is reasonable or likely when evaluating whether the value makes sense.
For example, the official January 2014 census reported the resident population of the US as 317,297,725. Do you think the US population was correctly determined to the reported nine significant figures, that is, to the exact number of people? People are constantly being born, dying, or moving into or out of the country, and assumptions are made to account for the large number of people who are not actually counted. Because of these uncertainties, it might be more reasonable to expect that we know the population to within perhaps a million or so, in which case the population should be reported as 3.17 × 108 people.