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Chemistry LibreTexts

3.18: Uncertainty in Addition and Subtraction

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  • Page ID
    52725
  • Introduction

    Calculators are great devices. Their invention has allowed for quick computation at work, school, or other places where manipulation of numbers needs to be done rapidly and accurately. But they are only as good as the numbers put into them. The calculator cannot determine how accurate each set of numbers is and the answer given on the screen must be assessed by the user for reliability.

    Uncertainty in Addition and Subtraction

    Consider two separate mass measurements: \(16.7 \: \text{g}\) and \(5.24 \: \text{g}\). The first mass measurement \(\left( 16.7 \: \text{g} \right)\) is known only to the tenths place or to one digit after the decimal point. There is no information about its hundredth place and so that digit cannot be assumed to be zero. The second measurement \(\left( 5.24 \: \text{g} \right)\) is known to the hundredths place or to two digits after the decimal point.

    When these masses are added together, the result on a calculator is \(16.7 + 5.24 = 21.94 \: \text{g}\). Reporting the answer as \(21.94 \: \text{g}\) suggests that the sum is known all the way to the hundredths place. However that cannot be true because the hundredths place of the first mass was completely unknown. The calculated answer needs to be rounded in such a way as to reflect the certainty of each of the measured values that contributed to it. For addition and subtraction problems, the answer should be rounded to the same number of decimal places as the measurement with the least number of decimal places. The sum of the above masses would be properly rounded to a result of \(21.9 \: \text{g}\).

    When working with whole numbers, pay attention to the last significant digit that is to the left of the decimal point and round your answer to that same point. For example, consider the subtraction: \(78,500 \: \text{m} - 362 \: \text{m}\). The calculated result is \(78,138 \: \text{m}\). However, the first measurement is known only to the hundreds place, as the 5 is the last significant digit. Rounding the result to that same point means that the correct result is \(78,100 \: \text{m}\).

    Summary

    • For addition and subtraction problems, the answer should be rounded to the same number of decimal places as the measurement with the least number of decimal places.

    Contributors

    • CK-12 Foundation by Sharon Bewick, Richard Parsons, Therese Forsythe, Shonna Robinson, and Jean Dupon.