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ERIC Number: EJ1024145
Record Type: Journal
Publication Date: 2013-Sep
Pages: 4
Abstractor: As Provided
Reference Count: 33
ISSN: ISSN-0031-921X
Evolution of the Significant Figure Rules
Carter, Ashley R.
Physics Teacher, v51 n6 p340-343 Sep 2013
Today, almost all introductory physics textbooks include standardized "rules" on how to find the number of significant figures in a calculated value. And yet, 30 years ago these rules were almost nonexistent. Why have we increased the role of significant figures in introductory classes, and should we continue this trend? A look back at the evolution of significant figures over the last 300 years, from Newton to Millikan to modern authors, sheds some light on their purpose moving forward. While there is much discussion for and against their use, especially in chemistry, a review of earlier versions of the rules suggests that we have lost some items of value, most notably, a significant figure rule for angles. In addition, we have lost the emphasis that the significant figure rules were designed to calculate an approximate (not exact) precision. Now that the significant figure rules are ingrained into our introductory physics sequence, we would be wise to reiterate that these are just general "rules of thumb."
American Association of Physics Teachers. One Physics Ellipse, College Park, MD 20740. Tel: 301-209-3300; Fax: 301-209-0845; e-mail:; Web site:
Publication Type: Reports - Evaluative; Journal Articles
Education Level: N/A
Audience: N/A
Language: English
Sponsor: N/A
Authoring Institution: N/A