# 2.3: Scientific Notation - Writing Large and Small Numbers

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Chemists often work with numbers that are exceedingly large or small. For example, entering the mass in grams of a hydrogen atom into a calculator would require a display with at least 24 decimal places. A system called **scientific notation** avoids much of the tedium and awkwardness of manipulating numbers with large or small magnitudes. In scientific notation, these numbers are expressed in the form

\[ N \times 10^n\]

where N is greater than or equal to 1 and less than 10 (1 ≤ N < 10), and n is a positive or negative integer (10^{0} = 1). The number 10 is called the base because it is this number that is raised to the power \(n\). Although a base number may have values other than 10, the base number in scientific notation is always 10.

A simple way to convert numbers to scientific notation is to move the decimal point as many places to the left or right as needed to give a number from 1 to 10 (N). The magnitude of n is then determined as follows:

- If the decimal point is moved to the left n places, n is positive.
- If the decimal point is moved to the right n places, n is negative.

Another way to remember this is to recognize that as the number N decreases in magnitude, the exponent increases and vice versa. The application of this rule is illustrated in Example \(\PageIndex{1}\).

## Addition and Subtraction

Before numbers expressed in scientific notation can be added or subtracted, they must be converted to a form in which all the exponents have the same value. The appropriate operation is then carried out on the values of N. Example \(\PageIndex{2}\) illustrates how to do this.

## Multiplication and Division

When multiplying numbers expressed in scientific notation, we multiply the values of \(N\) and add together the values of \(n\). Conversely, when dividing, we divide \(N\) in the dividend (the number being divided) by \(N\) in the divisor (the number by which we are dividing) and then subtract n in the divisor from n in the dividend. In contrast to addition and subtraction, the exponents do not have to be the same in multiplication and division. Examples of problems involving multiplication and division are shown in Example \(\PageIndex{3}\).

## Contributions & Attributions

This page was constructed from content via the following contributor(s) and edited (topically or extensively) by the LibreTexts development team to meet platform style, presentation, and quality:

Henry Agnew (UC Davis)