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3.18: Significant Figures in Multiplication and Division

  • Page ID
    52703
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    Calculators do not keep track of significant figures
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\) (Credit: Adrian Pingstone (User:Arpingstone/Wikimedia Commons); Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Calculator.arp.600pix.jpg; License: Public Domain)

    Who should report the numbers - you or your calculator?

    Calculators do just what is asked of them—no more and no less. However, they sometimes can get a little out of hand. If you multiply 2.48 times 6.3, you get an answer of 15.687, a value that ignores the number of significant figures in either number. Division with a calculator is even worse. When you divide 12.2 by 1.7, the answer you obtain is 7.176470588. Neither piece of data is accurate to nine decimal places, but the calculator does not know that. The human being operating the instrument has to make the decision about how many places to report.

    Uncertainty in Multiplication and Division

    The density of a certain object is calculated by dividing the mass by the volume. Suppose that a mass of \(37.46 \: \text{g}\) is divided by a volume of \(12.7 \: \text{cm}^3\). The result on a calculator would be:

    \[D = \frac{m}{V} = \frac{37.46 \: \text{g}}{12.7 \: \text{cm}^3} = 2.949606299 \: \text{g/cm}^3\nonumber \]

    The value of the mass measurement has four significant figures, while the value of the volume measurement has only three significant figures. For multiplication and division problems, the answer should be rounded to the same number of significant figures as the measurement with the least number of significant figures. Applying this rule results in a density of \(2.95 \: \text{g/cm}^3\), with three significant figures—the same as the volume measurement.

    Example \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    Perform the following calculations, rounding the answers to the appropriate number of significant figures.

    A. \(0.048 \: \text{m} \times 32.97 \: \text{m}\)

    B. \(14,570 \: \text{kg} \div 5.81 \: \text{L}\)

    Solution

    Step 1: Plan the problem.

    Analyze each of the measured values to determine how many significant figures should be in the result. Perform the calculation and round appropriately. Apply the correct units to the answer. When multiplying or dividing, the units are also multiplied or divided.

    Step 2: Calculate.

    A. \(0.048 \: \text{m} \times 32.97 \: \text{m} = 1.6 \: \text{m}^2\) Round to two significant figures because 0.048 has two.

    B. \(14,570 \: \text{kg} \div 5.81 \: \text{L} = 2510 \: \text{kg/L}\) Round to three significant figures because 5.81 has three.

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    How many significant figures should the answer contain?

    \(10.61\times 12.133 \times 3.25\)

    Answer

    =418; 3 significant figures

    Summary

    • For multiplication and division problems, the answer should be rounded to the same number of significant figures as the measurement with the least number of significant figures.

    Review

    1. Perform the calculation and round your answer with the correct number of significant figures.
      1. 78.2 ÷ 32 cm3
      2. 3.0 m/s × 9.21 s
    1. What happens to units in multiplication and division problems?

    3.18: Significant Figures in Multiplication and Division is shared under a CK-12 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by CK-12 Foundation via source content that was edited to conform to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.

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