Basics: Significant Figures

After my post the other day about rounding errors, I got a ton of
requests to explain the idea of significant figures. That's
actually a very interesting topic.

The idea of significant figures is that when you're doing
experimental work, you're taking measurements - and measurements
always have a limited precision. The fact that your measurements - the
inputs to any calculation or analysis that you do - have limited
precision, means that the results of your calculations likewise have
limited precision. Significant figures (or significant digits, or just "sigfigs" for short) are a method of tracking measurement
precision, in a way that allows you to propagate your precision limits

Before getting to the rules for sigfigs, it's helpful to show why
they matter. Suppose that you're measuring the radius of a circle, in
order to compute its area. You take a ruler, and eyeball it, and end
up with the circle's radius as about 6.2 centimeters. Now you go to
compute the area: π=3.141592653589793... So what's the area of the
circle? If you do it the straightforward way, you'll end up with a
result of 120.76282160399165 cm2.