I What is the proof of the rules of significant figures?

  • Thread starter fxdung
  • Start date
162
4
Please prove the rules of significant figures. I do not know why when multiplying and dividing we have to retain the same number of significant figures as in the number with the least of them.
 

Orodruin

Staff Emeritus
Science Advisor
Homework Helper
Insights Author
Gold Member
2018 Award
15,761
5,760
The rules of significant figures is a poor man’s version of error analysis and propagation. It is more rules of thumb about how far you can trust your precision than actual rules.
 

RPinPA

Science Advisor
Homework Helper
461
260
Let's say for instance you have a measured value which you write as ##x = 2.3##. What that is supposed to mean is that you're confident of the 2 and the 3, but not of any further figures. You don't mean that the real value is 2.3000. You mean it's approximately 2.3. You mean that it could be 2.32. It could be 2.27. You can't distinguish between those possibilities with your measuring equipment. It's something that rounds to 2.3, so it could range from 2.25 to just under 2.35. We could write this as 2.30##\pm##0.05. Let's call this ##x + dx## where ##-0.05 \leq dx \lt 0.05## (technically it can't equal +0.5 exactly as that would round up, not down).

Now let's say we have another measured value ##y = 4.12##. On this one, I'm confident of the three digits, but no more. So actually it's 4.12##\pm##0.005 or ##y + dy## with ##-0.5 \leq dy \lt 0.5##.

What will we say about a calculated value ##z = xy##? Well since the correct values of ##x## and ##y## are actually a range of values, we have a range of possible values for ##z##.
##z + dz = (x + dx)(y + dy) = xy + y\;dx + x\;dy + dx\,dy##
So the error part that we add to ##xy## is ##dz = y dx + x dy + dx dy##.
That means that ##dz/z = (y\;dx)/z + (x\;dy)/z + dx\,dy = (y\;dx)/(xy) + (x\;dy)/(xy) + dx\,dy/(xy)## = ##(dx/x) + (dy/y) + (dx/x)(dy/y)##.
In the example we have ##dx/x = 0.05/2.3 = 0.022## a ##2.2\%## error and ##dy/y = 0.005/4.12 = 0.0012##, a ##0.12\%## error. So the relative error in ##z## is going to be at least ##2.2\% + 0.12\%##, and that last term is even smaller, a tiny fraction of a percent. So we typically ignore it.

We know ##y## to about 0.1%, but we only know ##x## to about ##2\%##, and that causes us to only know ##z## to about ##2\%##. It is the error in your least precise term that dominates in your overall error.
 
Last edited:

DaveC426913

Gold Member
18,148
1,723
I do not know why when multiplying and dividing we have to retain the same number of significant figures as in the number with the least of them.
This isn't a "proof", rather an intuit:

You're trying to measure the area of your rectangular table to make a pattern on it out of beads. You need to go to the bead store with a value for the area to get the right amount of beads.

You use a millimetre tape measure to measure the length of your table and get a value of 1,000 millimetres (1.000 m).
Your tape measure gets busted and now you're left with only a metre stick with all the markings worn off.
You measure the width of your table and get a value of 1m. Without any markings, you have no way of knowing whether the precise width of your table is 0.5m or 1.5m or anything in between.

When you go to the bead store, what can you tell them about the area of your table?

1.000 x 1(rounded up or down) is not 1.000. You simply don't know its area to within a millimetre. All you know is that your table's area is somewhere between 0.5 and 1.5 m2.

In other words the only meaningful thing you can say, without artificially adding digits, is that your table is 1 metre square.
 

Want to reply to this thread?

"What is the proof of the rules of significant figures?" You must log in or register to reply here.

Related Threads for: What is the proof of the rules of significant figures?

Replies
5
Views
4K
  • Posted
Replies
1
Views
3K
  • Posted
Replies
2
Views
3K
  • Posted
Replies
19
Views
4K
  • Posted
Replies
4
Views
5K

Physics Forums Values

We Value Quality
• Topics based on mainstream science
• Proper English grammar and spelling
We Value Civility
• Positive and compassionate attitudes
• Patience while debating
We Value Productivity
• Disciplined to remain on-topic
• Recognition of own weaknesses
• Solo and co-op problem solving

Hot Threads

Top