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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.

The left diagram uses the example of 3090. The zero in the hundreds place is labeled “captive” and the zero in the ones place is labeled trailing. The right diagram uses the example 0.008020. The three zeros in the ones, tenths, and hundredths places are labeled “leading.” The zero in the ten-thousandths place is labeled “captive” and the zero in the millionths place is labeled “trailing.”

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.

The left diagram uses the example of 1267 meters. The number 1 is the first nonzero figure on the left. 1267 has 4 significant figures in total. The right diagram uses the example of 55.0 grams. The number 5 in the tens place is the first nonzero figure on the left. 55.0 has 3 significant figures. Note that the 0 is to the right of the decimal point and therefore is a significant figure.

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 left diagram uses the example of 70.607 milliliters. The number 7 is the first nonzero figure on the left. 70.607 has 5 significant figures in total, as all figures are measured including the 2 zeros. The right diagram uses the example of 0.00832407 M L. The number 8 is the first nonzero figure on the left. 0.00832407 has 6 significant figures.

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 × 10 3 (two significant figures), 1.30 × 10 3 (three significant figures, if the tens place was measured), or 1.300 × 10 3 (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.

This figure uses the example of 1300 grams. The one and the 3 are significant figures as they are clearly the result of measurement. The 2 zeros could be significant if they were measured or they could be placeholders.

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 × 10 8 people.

Significant figures in calculations

A second important principle of uncertainty is that results calculated from a measurement are at least as uncertain as the measurement itself. We must take the uncertainty in our measurements into account to avoid misrepresenting the uncertainty in calculated results. One way to do this is to report the result of a calculation with the correct number of significant figures, which is determined by the following three rules for rounding    numbers:

Questions & Answers

what are oxidation numbers
Idowu Reply
pls what is electrolysis
Idowu Reply
Electrolysis is the process by which ionic substances are decomposed (broken down) into simpler substances when an electric current is passed through them. ... Electricity is the flow of electrons or ions. For electrolysis to work, the compound must contain ions.
what is the basicity of an atom
Eze Reply
basicity is the number of replaceable Hydrogen atoms in a Molecule. in H2SO4, the basicity is 2. in Hcl, the basicity is 1
how to solve oxidation number
Mr Reply
mention some examples of ester
Chinenye Reply
do you mean ether?
what do converging lines on a mass Spectra represent
Rozzi Reply
would I do to help me know this topic ?
what the physic?
Bassidi Reply
who is albert heistein?
similarities between elements in the same group and period
legend Reply
what is the ratio of hydrogen to oxulygen in carbohydrates
Nadeen Reply
what is poh and ph
Amarachi Reply
please what is the chemical configuration of sodium
2, 6, 2, 1
1s2, 2s2, 2px2, 2py2, 2pz2, 3s1
what is criteria purity
Austin Reply
cathode is a negative ion why is it that u said is negative
Michael Reply
cathode is a negative electrode while cation is a positive ion. cation move towards cathode plate.
CH3COOH +NaOH ,complete the equation
david Reply
compare and contrast the electrical conductivity of HCl and CH3cooH
Sa Reply
The must be in dissolved in water (aqueous). Electrical conductivity is measured in Siemens (s). HCl (aq) has higher conductivity, as it fully ionises (small portion of CH3COOH (aq) ionises) when dissolved in water. Thus, more free ions to carry charge.
HCl being an strong acid will fully ionize in water thus producing more mobile ions for electrical conduction than the carboxylic acid
differiante between a weak and a strong acid
how can I tell when an acid is weak or Strong
an aqueous solution of copper sulphate was electrolysed between graphite electrodes. state what was observed at the cathode
Bakanya Reply
write the equation for the reaction that took place at the anode
what is enthalpy of combustion
Enthalpy change of combustion: It is the enthalpy change when 1 mole of substance is combusted with excess oxygen under standard conditions. Elements are in their standard states. Conditions: pressure = 1 atm Temperature =25°C
Observation at Cathode: Cu metal deposit (pink/red solid).
Equation at Anode: (SO4)^2- + 4H^+ + 2e^- __> SO2 + 2H2O
Equation : CuSO4 -> Cu^2+ + SO4^2- equation at katode: 2Cu^2+ + 4e -> 2Cu equation at anode: 2H2O -> 4H+ + O2 +4e at the anode which reacts is water because SO4 ^ 2- cannot be electrolyzed in the anode
Practice Key Terms 6

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Source:  OpenStax, Chemistry. OpenStax CNX. May 20, 2015 Download for free at http://legacy.cnx.org/content/col11760/1.9
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