8.4: Scientific Notation
Learning Objectives
 Write numbers in scientific notation.
 Evaluate expressions in scientific notation.
 Evaluate expressions in scientific notation using a graphing calculator.
Introduction – Powers of 10
Consider the number six hundred and forty three thousand, two hundred and ninety seven. We write it as 643,297 and each digit’s position has a “value” assigned to it. You may have seen a table like this before.
We have seen that when we write an exponent above a number it means that we have to multiply a certain number of factors of that number together. We have also seen that a zero exponent always gives us one, and negative exponents make fractional answers. Look carefully at the table above. Do you notice that all the column headings are powers of ten? Here they are listed.
Even the “units” column is really just a power of ten. Unit means 1 and .
If we divide 643,297 by 100,000 we get 6.43297. If we multiply this by 100,000 we get back to our original number. But we have just seen that 100,000 is the same as , so if we multiply 6.43297 by we should also get our original answer. In other words
So we have found a new way of writing numbers! What do you think happens when we continue the powers of ten? Past the units column down to zero we get into decimals, here the exponent becomes negative.
Writing Numbers Greater Than One in Scientific Notation
Scientific notation numbers are always written in the following form.
Where and , the exponent, is an integer. This notation is especially useful for numbers that are either very small or very large. When we use scientific notation to write numbers, the exponent on the 10 determines the position of the decimal point.
Look at the following examples.
Look at the first term of the list and examine the position of the decimal point in both expressions.
So the exponent on the ten acts to move the decimal point over to the right. An exponent of 4 moves it 4 places and an exponent of 3 would move it 3 places.
Example 1
Write the following numbers in scientific notation.
(a) 63
(b) 9,654
(c) 653,937,000
(d) 1,000,000,006
(a)
(b)
(c)
(d)
Example 2
The Sun is approximately 93 million miles for Earth. Write this distance in scientific notation.
This time we will simply write out the number longhand (with a decimal point) and count decimal places.
Solution
A Note on Significant Figures
We often combine scientific notation with rounding numbers. If you look at Example 2, the distance you are given has been rounded. It is unlikely that the distance is exactly 93 million miles! Looking back at the numbers in Example 1, if we round the final two answers to 2 significant figures (2 s.f.) they become:
1(c)
1(d)
Note that the zero after the decimal point has been left in for Example 1(d) to indicate that the result has been rounded. It is important to know when it is OK to round and when it is not.
Writing Numbers Less Than One in Scientific Notation
We have seen how we can use scientific notation to express large numbers, but it is equally good at expressing extremely small numbers. Consider the following example.
Example 3
The time taken for a light beam to cross a football pitch is 0.0000004 seconds. Express this time in scientific notation.
We will proceed in a similar way as before.
So...
Just as a positive exponent on the ten moves the decimal point that many places to the right, a negative exponent moves the decimal place that many places to the left.
Example 4
Express the following numbers in scientific notation.
(a) 0.003
(b) 0.000056
(c) 0.00005007
(d) 0.00000000000954
Let’s use the method of counting how many places we would move the decimal point before it is after the first nonzero number. This will give us the value for our negative exponent.
(a)
(b)
(c)
(d)
Evaluating Expressions in Scientific Notation
When we are faced with products and quotients involving scientific notation, we need to remember the rules for exponents that we learned earlier. It is relatively straightforward to work with scientific notation problems if you remember to deal with all the powers of 10 together. The following examples illustrate this.
Example 5
Evaluate the following expressions and write your answer in scientific notation.
(a)
(b)
(c)
The key to evaluating expressions involving scientific notation is to keep the powers of 10 together and deal with them separately. Remember that when we use scientific notation, the leading number must be between 1 and 10. We need to move the decimal point over one place to the left. See how this adds 1 to the exponent on the 10.
(a)
Solution
(b)
Solution
(c)
Solution
Example 6
Evaluate the following expressions. Round to 3 significant figures and write your answer in scientific notation.
(a)
(b)
(c)
It will be easier if we convert to fractions and THEN separate out the powers of 10.
(a)
Solution
(rounded to 3 significant figures)
(b)
Solution
(rounded to 3 significant figures)
(c)
Solution
(rounded to 3 significant figures)
Note that the final zero has been left in to indicate that the result has been rounded.
Evaluate Expressions in Scientific Notation Using a Graphing Calculator
All scientific and graphing calculators have the ability to use scientific notation. It is extremely useful to know how to use this function.
To insert a number in scientific notation, use the [EE] button. This is [2nd] [,] on some TI models.
For example to enter enter 2.6 [EE] 5.
When you hit [ENTER] the calculator displays 2.6E5 if it’s set in Scientific mode OR it displays 260000 if it’s set in Normal mode.
(To change the mode, press the ‘Mode’ key)
Example 7
Evaluate using a graphing calculator.
[ENTER] 1.7 EE EE 11 and press [ENTER]
The calculator displays 6.296296296E16 whether it is in Normal mode or Scientific mode. This is the case because the number is so big that it does not fit inside the screen in Normal mode.
Solution
Example 8
Evaluate using a graphing calculator.
[ENTER] 2.3 EE EE 10 and press [ENTER]
The calculator displays .001127 in Normal mode or 1.127E3 in Scientific mode.
Solution
Example 9
Evaluate using a graphing calculator.
[ENTER] and press [ENTER].
The calculator displays 9.1125E43
Solution
Solve RealWorld Problems Using Scientific Notation
Example 10
The mass of a single lithium atom is approximately one percent of one millionth of one billionth of one billionth of one kilogram. Express this mass in scientific notation.
We know that percent means we divide by 100, and so our calculation for the mass (in kg) is
Next, we use the product of powers rule we learned earlier in the chapter.
Solution
The mass of one lithium atom is approximately .
Example 11
You could fit about 3 million E. coli bacteria on the head of a pin. If the size of the pin head in question is , calculate the area taken up by one E. coli bacterium. Express your answer in scientific notation.
Since we need our answer in scientific notation it makes sense to convert 3 million to that format first:
Next, we need an expression involving our unknown. The area taken by one bacterium. Call this .
Isolate :
Solution
The area of one bacterium
Notice that we had to move the decimal point over one place to the right, subtracting 1 from the exponent on the 10.
Review Questions
 Write the numerical value of the following.
 Write the following numbers in scientific notation.
 120,000
 1,765,244
 12
 0.00281
 0.000000027
 The moon is approximately a sphere with radius miles. Use the formula Surface to determine the surface area of the moon, in square miles. Express your answer in scientific notation, rounded to 2 significant figures.
 The charge on one electron is approximately coulombs. One Faraday is equal to the total charge on electrons. What, in coulombs, is the charge on one Faraday?
 Proxima Centauri, the next closest star to our Sun is approximately miles away. If light from Proxima Centauri takes hours to reach us from there, calculate the speed of light in miles per hour. Express your answer in scientific notation, rounded to 2 significant figures.
Review Answers

 310.2
 74.000
 0.00175
 0.000029
 0.00000000999
 or