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Are there simpler rules for counting significant digits?

I need your help. In my honors chemistry class one of the topics were are studying are significant digits. Our teacher told us of an easy way to figure out the significant digits instead of trying to remember all of the rules. It is called "The Atlantic Pacific Rule." Would you please explain the rule to me?
FEYE32

Vocabulary
scientific notation*
significant digit*
The Atlantic-Pacific Rule says:
    "If a decimal point is Present, ignore zeros on the Pacific (left) side. If the decimal point is Absent, ignore zeros on the Atlantic (right) side. Everything else is significant."[1]

If you're not in the Americas, you may prefer the following less colorful way to say the same thing:

  1. Ignore leading zeros.
  2. Ignore trailing zeros, unless they come after a decimal point.
  3. Everything else is significant.

The rule is easy to use and to remember, but it lets you count significant digits without having the slightest idea what they really are.

If you feel comfortable with scientific notation, the simplest rule for counting significant digits is:

    "Convert the number into scientific notation. Any leading or trailing zeros the decimal point bumps past in the conversion will vanish. Everything else is significant."

Writing measurements in scientific notation shows that the significant part of the measurement doesn't change when you change units. For example, 2.0 cm = 2.0 × 10-2 m = 2.0 × 101 mm = 2.0 × 104 µm, all with 2 significant digits.

Here are some examples that apply both rules. The nonsignificant zeros are colored blue.
NumberAtlantic-Pacific ruleScientific notation rule
0.001010decimal point Present: ignore zeros on the Pacific side. 4 sig. digits.In scientific notation: 1.010 × 10-3. 4 sig. digits. The decimal point moved past the three leading zeros; they vanished.
0.30000decimal point Present: ignore zeros on the Pacific side. 5 sig. digits.In scientific notation: 3.0000 × 10-1. 5 sig. digits. The decimal point bumped past the leading zero; it vanished.
100.0000decimal point Present: ignore zeros on the Pacific side (none!) 7 sig. digits.In scientific notation: 1.000000 × 102. The decimal point moved past two zeros, but they aren't trailing zeros; they're in the middle of the number. 7 sig. digits.
12303000decimal point Absent: ignore zeros on the Atlantic side. 5 sig. digits.In scientific notation: 1.2303 × 107. The decimal point moved past the trailing three zeros; they vanished. It moved past the zero between the threes, too, but that's not a trailing or leading zero; it stays. 5 sig. digits.

References

  1. H. M. Stone, "Atlantic-Pacific sig figs (INS)", J. Chem. Educ., 66, 829 (1989).

Author: Fred Senese senese@antoine.frostburg.edu



General Chemistry Online! Are there simpler rules for counting significant digits?

Copyright © 1997-2010 by Fred Senese
Comments & questions to fsenese@frostburg.edu
Last Revised 08/17/15.URL: http://antoine.frostburg.edu/chem/senese/101/measurement/faq/simple-sigfig-rules.shtml