Explaining Scientific Notation
Date: 10/21/2002 at 12:51:37 From: Teaka Subject: Scientfic Notation Could you try to explain scientific notation to me? Thank you.
Date: 10/21/2002 at 15:39:17 From: Doctor Ian Subject: Re: Scientfic Notations Hi Teaka, There are actually only a few rules, but with lots of different applications. The first rule is this: If you have a product, a*b, you can divide a by something if you multiply b by the same thing. That is, a*b = (a/c) * (b*c) For example, 12*15 = (12/3) * (15*3) Make sure that makes sense to you, because it's crucial to everything else. Now, let's start with a big number, like 219,425,000 I can write this as 219,425,000 * 1 What if I divide the first number by 10, and multiply the second by 10? According to our rule, this shouldn't change the value of the product: 219,425,000 * 1 = 21,942,500 * 10 = 2,194,250 * 100 = 219,425 * 1000 And so on. Does that make sense? Now, what if I keep going until the number on the left is between 1 and 10? I end up with = 2.19425 * 100,000,000 Now, just to check that we haven't done anything dumb, we can make sure this is in the ballpark: the first number is about 2, and the second is a hundred million, so if we multiply them together, we get about two hundred million, which is about where we started. Sometimes we make the number on the right smaller instead of larger: 0.000134 * 1 = 0.00134 * 1/10 = 0.0134 * 1/100 = 0.134 * 1/1000 = 1.34 * 1/10,000 Does this make sense? Now, it turns out that we have a very compact notation for these numbers on the right: n 10^n = 10 = 1 (followed by n zeros) For example, 10^0 = 1 10^1 = 10 10^2 = 100 10^3 = 1,000 10^4 = 10,000 For fractions, we have a similar rule: 10^-1 = 1/10 10^-2 = 1/100 10^-3 = 1/1,000 10^-4 = 1/10,000 Now, you might look at this and think: This is still a lot of rules! But in fact, there's probably nothing here that you couldn't have figured out if you understand what an exponent is. For example, 10^4 = 10 * 10 * 10 * 10 = 100 * 10 * 10 = 1000 * 10 = 10000 That is, every time we multiply by 10, we add another zero on the right. That's _why_ the exponent matches the number of zeros. It's not a magic formula that someone made up. It's just something that follows from the way exponents are defined. In fact, the only thing that's new is the idea of splitting a number into the product of two numbers. And even that's not such a new idea, since you've probably been doing things like 12 = 3 * 4 for years. This is the same thing, except we're using tens. Anyway, this lets us write things very compactly: 0.0000000000134 = 1.34 * 10^-11 219,000,000,000,000,000 = 2.19 * 10^17 This is especially nice when we get big numbers like 6.02 * 10^23 (which is the number of water molecules in 18 grams of water), because we don't have to remember the name for the number (is this 6 zillion? 6 jillion?). We can just use the exponent as a name. So that's all that's going on when we use scientific notation. In fact, there's just one rule that you have to follow: Start with something * 1 and multiply or divide by 10 until you get (something between 1 and 10) * (some power of 10) It's true that there are lots of shortcuts that you can use, like counting zeros or moving decimal points around. However, if you try to memorize them without knowing why they work, you're likely to forget them (or worse, mix them up without realizing it) at the worst possible time. On the other hand, if you understand why they work, you don't have to bother memorizing them. I hope this helps. Write back if you'd like to talk more about this, or anything else. - Doctor Ian, The Math Forum http://mathforum.org/dr.math/
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