Monday, August 27, 2012

The sig figs strike back.

Okay, the title is a really bad pun based on "The Empire Strikes Back." Forgive me. Anyway, "sig figs" (significant figures) really have returned into my life via the first chapter of my physics book. Can I just say I really dislike the first chapter of any science book? I swear that most of them are all the same. (Insert science here) is broken into many different areas x, y, z. Then it goes into scientific theories and observations and the whole point of being a scientist. Then they go over units and significant figures and how to properly show work. Seriously. The first chapters of my chemistry and physics books, other than the fact that they have a little more emphasis on their respective sciences, are strikingly similar (notice the reappearance of strike? It's just that type of punny day.). Anyway, sig figs. They were the bane of my existence the first couple months of junior year. My chemistry professor all but hammered them into my head, which was good, just slightly painful. I hate to admit it, but the first quiz I took in chemistry, I was so nervous that I miscounted the significant figures. It was really quite sad. I think I counted 5 instead of 7. It's amazing that I made it past basic arithmetic. Even after I felt like a pro at sig figs, they still reared their nasty little heads on complicated lab calculations. It got to the point when my lab partner and I hung our heads in shame over missed points on our lab because of sig figs. It was really depressing. It's like, you did everything you were supposed to do in the experiment, you didn't light yourself on fire with the Bunsen burner, you didn't break the crucible, you didn't fall off the lab stool in front of your professor (unless you're me), and bam. A couple tiny little numbers get you every single time. Okay, not every single time, but it sure felt like it was happening more than it should have been.

At this point, you're probably wondering what my point is. My point is very simple: obey the sig figs. Really. They are like the rulers (rulers as in dictators, not the measuring devices) of all scientific calculations. That's a bit extreme, but seriously, it helps to know the rules and to apply the rules when performing calculations. I'm not going to delve into these rules because professors and textbooks and teachers are much more well-versed in the realm of sig figs than I am. For me, they just kinda clicked eventually. It was the ultimate "aha" moment, at least within the time span of the first two weeks of class. And thus ends my rant about sig figs. They are important, but that doesn't mean I don't get to rant about screwing them up every now and then.

Hannah

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