The first significant figure in a number is the first non-zero digit in the number (reading from left to right). In the numbers 35, 35985 and 0.00356, the first significant figure is the number 3.
When counting for two or more significant figures, then count the figures after the first significant figure has been found.
When rounding, find the number of significant figures required then check the next digit after the significant figures. If the next digit is less than 5, then round down: if 5 or greater, then round up.
Significant figures are sometimes shown with initials sf: for example, 3.4 (2sf) means the number is 3.4 to 2 significant figures.
Examples of significant figures:
1. In a physics experiment, Emily measured a force of 12.45 Newtons. What was the value of the force to two significant figures?
Answer: 12 Newtons
The first two significant figures are 12: check the next digit (4); this is less than 5 so the number stays as 12. Note that writing 12.0 would be wrong, as this would imply an accuracy of three significant figures.
2. Harry jumped 2564 millimetres in a long jump. What distance was this, rounded to one significant figure?
Answer: 3000 millimetres
The first significant figure is a 2. Check the next digit (5): it is 5 or more so round the significant figure up (from 2 to 3).