Questions I’ve Answered About Significant Figures

I have, for your amazement and amusement, added some questions that I’ve been asked over the years about sig figs, precision, accuracy, and other related topics.  And, of course, the answers.


Q:  What is “standard notation”?

A:  Standard notation is the “long way” of writing numbers.

This is in contrast to scientific notation, which expresses numbers in powers of ten. For example, the number 1.3 x104 (scientific notation) is written as 13,000 in standard notation.


Q:  How do I put a number in scientific notation into my calculator?

A:  You’d do this using a special “exponent” button, as opposed to treating it like a calculation.

Let’s say that you want to write the number 1.23 x104.  Here’s how you’d put that in your calculator (assuming you’re using a TI-83):

  • Type in “1.23”
  • Hit “2nd”, then the comma over the 7. This should give you an “E” in your calculator.
  • Type the exponent in the number, which in this case is “4.”

You should now see something that looks like 1.23E4, which is the number we’re talking about.

Now, you can also do this by typing in 1.23 * 10^4, but if you do you may run into trouble for some calculations because your calculator will perform the operations in an order you didn’t anticipate. Best to go with the first method


Question:  What does the “+/- 5%” on the side of a beaker mean?

Answer:  It means that if you were to use the lines on the side to measure some volume of liquid, the answer may be up to 5% too high or 5% too low.

In other words, use a graduated cylinder for finding volume.


Actually, that’s it for questions.  I guess people don’t ask much about significant figures or scientific notation.


Copyright information:

This webpage originally contained questions with answers posted on my website in the years 1998-2014 or on the socratic.org website in 2014 by Ian Guch.  Because of their terms of use (and because open source is good), this material is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommerical-ShareAlike 4.0 International license (CC BY-NC 4.0).  For more information about this license and how it affects how you can use the contents of this site, click here.

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