Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Significant Figures

I've found I don't like the idea of significant figures, from a mathematical perspective. If you look up the wiki on it, in the section called Ineffectiveness, you'll see that, apparently, the subject receives more attention in high-school and college chemistry courses than it does in real-world laboratories. Labs use a different method of notating uncertainty.

For the following discussion, it might be helpful to review the rules for adding and subtracting using correct significant figures:

1. For multiplication and division, the result should have as many significant figures as the measured number with the smallest number of significant figures.

2. For addition and subtraction, the result should have as many decimal places as the measured number with the smallest number of decimal places.

So here's why I don't like significant figures. There are at least two mathematical problems I see with them.

1. Multiplication is not associative. Here's an example:

(1.11 x 5.79) x 6.34 = 6.43 x 6.34 = 40.8

1.11 x (5.79 x 6.34) = 1.11 x 36.7 = 40.7

These answers are clearly not equal in the least significant digit. Which answer is correct? I'm hanged if I know.

2. Multiplication does not necessarily give the same result as the equivalent addition problem. Here's an example: suppose we want to multiply 55.55 by the exact number 3. No problem. Integers, by definition, have an infinite number of significant figures. So we go 3 x 55.55 = 166.7. Ah, but now suppose we add instead: 55.55 + 55.55 + 55.55 = 111.10 + 55.55 = 166.65. The rounding rules for addition seem a bit more favorable towards retaining significant figures than multiplication does. And we see that we get a different answer here depending on which way we do things.

So I don't like 'em. I'm not entirely sure what alternatives there are. I suppose sig figs do have the pedagogic value of instilling in students the idea that you can't gain certainty by multiplication, at least (though you can by addition!).

Visit Math Help Boards for friendly, free and expert math help.


At 8/02/2009 08:45:00 PM , Blogger Meg G said...

My memories of sig figs in high school chemistry and physics include learning how 'important' they were and how to 'do them correctly' in the first two chapters, and then not being required to use them at all the rest of the course. (And I'd rather not remember what a pain I was to my teachers about how ridiculous I thought sig figs were. :-/ )

At 9/10/2009 11:43:00 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Adrian,
don;t you leave in all the decimal places until the final answer? ie only do the rounding up or down at the end? Been a long time since I did any significant maths!

At 9/15/2009 10:30:00 AM , Blogger Adrian C. Keister said...


Actually, you are required to use significant figure rules throughout all computations, if you are doing significant figures.


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