# Scientific notation, Powers and Prefixes

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This includes the metric system of notation that uses alphabetical prefixes to represent certain powers-of-ten instead of the lengthier scientific notation.
1. Maths for Biologists reference materials 1. Scientific notation, powers and prefixes
1. Scientific notation, powers and prefixes
1. Scientific notation, powers and prefixes....................................................................................1
1.1 Rationale: why use scientific notation or powers? ...............................................................1
1.2 Writing very large numbers in scientific notation ................................................................1
1.3 Writing very small numbers in scientific notation ...............................................................3
1.4 Practice converting between normal numbers and scientific notation ..................................4
1.5 Add and subtract in scientific notation ................................................................................5
1.6 Multiply and divide in scientific notation ............................................................................6
1.6b A note about fractional powers..........................................................................................7
1.7 Prefixes...............................................................................................................................8
1.8 Practice with prefixes..........................................................................................................9
1.9 Supplementary material – SI Units....................................................................................10
1.10 Converting between units for volume..............................................................................11
Summary of Learning Outcomes ............................................................................................12
1.1 Rationale: why use scientific notation or powers?
In biology there are many instances where you might need to calculate and manipulate
very large numbers or very small numbers. For example the number of nerve cells in
an average brain might be 10000000000. On the other hand, the length of a cell under
the microscope might be 0.000001m. The number of cell surface receptors for
hormones might be 100000 per cell whilst the concentration of peptide hormone in the
extracellular space might be 0.000000000001 M. These very large or very small
numbers are difficult to read and that is why we use scientific notation or powers.
1.2 Writing very large numbers in scientific notation
Very large numbers can be rewritten as other numbers multiplied together. For
example 100 is equal to 10 times 10 and we can write this as 102. The table shows how
other larger numbers can be written.
10 = 10 = just one ten = 101
100 = 10 x 10 = 2 tens multiplied together = 102
1 000 = 10 x 10 x 10 = 3 tens multiplied together = 103
10 000 = 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 = 4 tens multiplied together = 104
100 000 = 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 = 5 tens multiplied together = 105
10 000 000 000 = 10 tens multiplied together = 1010
Definition of terms:
Note that the terms “scientific notation”, “exponential notation”, “powers”,
“exponents” all mean the same thing.
The numbers that you’re multiplying together are called the “base”. The number of
times you multiply them together is called the “power” or “exponent”.
So in the last example,
10000 is written as “ten to the four” or 104,
10 is the base and 4 is the power or exponent.
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Some examples:
Example 1.1
Write 6000 in scientific notation…
This is just 6 x 1000 which is 6 x 103
Example 1.2
I have done an experiment to determine the concentration of drug in solution and the
answer was 6237234 molecules/l. Write this in scientific notation.
Write 6.237234 and then count how many places you need to move the decimal point
to the right …
In practice you would never be able to measure the concentration of drug to that
degree of accuracy. Usually you would work out how many significant figures are
appropriate in this instance.
You may decide to write it in 4 significant figures instead, 6.237 x 106.
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1.3 Writing very small numbers in scientific notation
We can use the same ideas when writing very small numbers.
1/10 = 0.1 = 1/101 = 10-1
1/100 = 0.01 = 1/ 102 = 10-2
1/1000 = 0.001 = 1/ 103 = 10-3
1/10000 = 0.0001 = 1/ 104 = 10-4
there is a handy general rule to remember, 1 / 10a = 10-a
Some examples:
Example 1.3 Write 0.00054 in scientific notation
This time you had to count how many places to move the decimal place to the left.
Example 1.4 Write 0.0134 in scientific notation
It is just a convention to put the decimal place after the first digit.
You could, if you wanted to, write this number in many different ways including:
0.134 x 10-1
1.34 x 10-2
13.4 x 10-3
All you are doing is moving the decimal place and changing the power to compensate.
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1.4 Practice converting between normal numbers and scientific
It is important that you are familiar and confident with how to convert between
normal numbers and scientific notation and vice versa.
To write 6478 in scientific notation, write 6.478 x 103.
What you are doing is working out how many places to move the decimal point.
The expression “6.478 x 103” is just saying, “write 6.478 and move the decimal point
three places to the right” giving 6478.
Or you can think of it as saying 6478 is the same as 6.478 x 1000 which is the same as
6.478 x 103
To write 0.00045 in scientific notation, write 4.5 x 10-4
The expression “4.5 x 10-4” is saying, “write 4.5 and move the decimal place four
places to the left giving 0.00045.”
Or you can think of it as saying 4.5 / 104 or 4.5 / 10000.
Some Examples:
Example 1.6
Write 340000 in scientific notation.
Example 1.7
Write 0.0000080 in scientific notation.
Example 1.8 Fill in the gaps:
0.00475 can be written as _____ x 10-2 and ____ x 10-3 and ____ x 10-4
Answer: 0.0475 x 10-2 and 4.75 x 10-3 and 47.5 x 10-4
Example 1.9
Write 9859486 in scientific notation to two significant figures
(note that if the third digit is 5 or more, then the second digit is rounded up so in this
case the third digit is 5 which means the second digit, 8, gets rounded up to 9.
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1.5 Add and subtract in scientific notation
To add or subtract two numbers in scientific notation,
you first need to convert them to the same power.
For example, 5 x 103 + 4 x 105
= 5 x 103 + 400 x 103
= 405 x 103
= 4.05 x 105
This is just the same as what you would normally do, i.e. you would line them up…
5000 5 x 103
+ 400000 400 x 103
= 405000 405 x 103
The same idea is used when subtracting,
2 x 10-3 – 8 x 10-4
= 20 x 10-4 – 8 x 10-4
= 12 x 10-4
= 1.2 x 10-3
This might be easier to visualise as…
0.0020 20 x 10-4
- 0.0008 8 x 10-4
= 0.0012 12 x 10-4
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1.6 Multiply and divide in scientific notation
To multiply numbers with the same base, add the exponents
ab x ac = ab + c
Some examples:
Example 1.10 103 x 105 = 103+5 = 108
Example 1.11 100 x 103 = 102 x 103 = 102+3 = 105
2
Here you have to convert 100 to 10 so you have the same base first before adding the
Example 1.12 6 x 102 x 5 x 1010
Here you just multiply the 6 and 5 as you would normally do, then add the powers.
=30 x 1012
What is the power of a power? (ab)c = a(b x c)
Example 1.13 (103)3 =103 x 103 x 103 = 103 x 3 = 109
Example 1.14 (10-5)2 = 10-10
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To divide numbers with the same base, subtract the exponents
ab
c
= a b−c
a
109
Example 1.15 = 109−4 = 105
104
109
Example 1.16 = 109−15 = 10 −6
1015
109
Example 1.17 = 109−( −15) = 109+15 = 1024
10−15
0.1 10−1
Example 1.18 = = 10−1−3 = 10−4
103 103
Here you have to convert 0.1 to 10-1 so you have the same base first before adding the
5 × 109
Example 1.19 = 2.5 × 109 −4 = 2.5 × 105
2 × 104
Here you just divide 5 by 2 as you would normally do, then subtract the powers.
But what if b – c gives zero?
If b - c is zero, then the exponents were the same and this is the same as dividing a
number by itself which of course gives one.
a0 = 1
105
Example 1.20 = 105−5 = 100 = 1
105
1.6b A note about fractional powers.
Once we understand that 10a x 10b = 10a+b then it becomes clear that the values for a and b do not
need to be integers. For example, consider the following,
100.5 x 100.5 = 100.5+0.5 = 101 = 10
This is the same as writing: 101/2 x 101/2 = 101/2+1/2 = 10
which is the same as: 10 × 10 = 10
Similarly 101/3 x 101/3 x 101/3 = 10
is the same as writing: 3
10 × 3 10 × 3 10 = 10
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The symbols √ and 3√ are typically only used for square roots and cubed roots i.e. 101/2 and 101/3
respectively. Otherwise we just use the decimal notation eg 100.793.
Fractional powers follow all the same rules as integer powers.
10a x 10b = 10a+b example: 100.3 x 100.8 = 101.1
10 a 10 0.3
= 10 a −b example: = 10 0.3− 0.9 = 10 − 0.6
10 b 10 0.9
powers of powers
(10a)b = 10axb example: (100.3)0.5 = 100.15
For addition and subtraction we must convert 10-6.3 + 10-6.9
to the same power, so: = 5.01187 x 10-7 + 1.2589 x 10-7
= 6.27077 x 10-7
1.7 Prefixes
Prefixes are a useful way of abbreviating even further for example 10-3 g = 1 mg (one
Here is a summary of all of the standard prefixes. The main prefixes in use in
biomedical science are shown in bold: learn them.
Factor Prefix Symbol Factor Prefix Symbol
24 -1
10 yotta Y 10 deci d
1021 zetta Z 10-2 centi c
1018 exa E 10-3 milli m
1015 peta P 10-6 micro µ
1012 tera T 10-9 nano n
109 giga G 10-12 pico p
106 mega M 10-15 femto f
103 kilo k 10-18 atto a
102 hecto h 10-21 zepto z
101 deca da 10-24 yocto y
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1.8 Practice with prefixes
Some examples:
Example 1.21 Convert scientific notation to a prefix:
Convert 5 x 10-5 g to mg and then to µg.
5 x 10-5 g = 5 x 10-2 x 10-3g = 0.05 mg
or
= 50 x 10-6 g = 50 µg
Example 1.22 Convert a prefix to scientific notation:
12pmol = 12 x 10-12 mol = 1.2 x 10-11mol
Example 1.23 Write 0.033 nM in scientific notation:
0.033nM = 0.033 x 10-9M = 3.3 x 10-11M
Example 1.24 Under the microscope, an epithelial cell looks quite rectangular
and you can use the formula for the area of a rectangle to estimate the area of the
cell. The dimensions you measure are width = 1 µm and length 10µm. Express the area
in scientific notation with m2 as the units.
Area = width x length = 1 x 10-6m x 10 x 10-6m
= 10 x 10-12m2
The height has been estimated from other studies to be approximately 5µm, what is
the volume of the cell (in m3 in scientific notation of the form a x 10b)?
Volume = area x height = 10 x 10-12m2 x 5 x 10-6m
= 50 x 10-18 m3
= 5 x 10-17 m3
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1.9 Supplementary material – SI Units
The standard units of measurement are the “SI Units” (Systeme Internationale) are
given in the table below. A good website for reference is the National Physical
Laboratory (www.npl.co.uk/reference/).
standard
measurement SI Unit
abbreviation
time second s
length metre m
mass kilogram kg
electric current ampere A
thermodynamic temperature kelvin K
amount of substance mole mol
luminous intensity candela cd
There are quite a few units which are in everyday use which are not in the above
table. The important ones for biologists are the units for time, temperature and
name symbol value in SI units
minute min 1 min = 60 s
hour h 1 h = 60 min = 3600 s
day d 1 d = 24 h = 86 400 s
degrees °C temp in °C
Celsius = (temp in K) – 273.15
litre l, L 1 l = 1 dm3 = 10-3 m3
Note that the litre can be abbreviated as l or L but L is often used because of the
potential for confusion of l (“ell”) and 1 (“one”).
Sometimes dm3 is used instead of L and cm3 is used instead of mL although L and mL
are more common.
There are a few conventions and it is a good idea to follow them to avoid confusion.
The key ones are:
• Unit symbols are unaltered in the plural (i.e. write 8 m not 8 ms to mean 8
metres.)
• Abbreviations such as sec (for either s or second) or mps (for either m/s or
meter per second) are not allowed.
• A space is left between the numerical value and unit symbol (25 kg but not: 25-
kg or 25kg).
• Mathematical operations should only be applied to unit symbols (kg/m2) and not
unit names (kilogram/cubic metre).
• kg/m2 can also be written as kg.m-2
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1.10 Converting between units for volume
Volume is sometimes expressed in dm3,
or cm3 or litres or ml – it is essential to
be able to convert between them.
Converting volumes between m3 and L.
A spherical bacterial cell has a diameter
of approximately 4 µm, what would its
volume be (in m3 and in L)?
There are (at least) two possible
approaches to this.
Method 1: The easiest way to do this is to change the units of the dimensions to
dm first.
The volume of a sphere is
4/3 πr3.
The radius is 2 µm = 2 x 10-6 m = 2 x 10-5 dm
Volume = 4/3 x 3.14 x (2 x 10-5 dm)3
= 33.5 x 10-15 dm3
= 33.5 fL
Method 2: An alternative method is to calculate the volume in µm3 and convert the
answer from µm3 directly to L.
Volume = 4/3 x 3.14 x (2 µm)3 = 33.5 (µm)3
I have included the bracket around the “µm” here to point out that it is a “micrometer
cubed” that is, (10-6m)3 which is 10-18m3. This is not the same thing as µ(m)3 which
would be 10-6m3. Commonly when you see µm3 written down it means (µm)3.
Volume = 33.5 x (10-6)3 = 33.5 x 10-18 m3
So now we need to convert 33.5 x 10-18m3 to litres.
One way to do this is to say,
33.5 x 10-18m3 x (10 dm.m-1)3 x 1L.dm-3
translating this into words… we take 33.5 x 10-18m3 and multiply by 10 decimeters per
m three times and by one litre per decimetre cubed. You can see that the units cancel
out to leave us with..
33.5 x 10-18x (10)3 L
So we are left with 33.5 x 10-15 L = 33.5 fL
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Summary of Learning Outcomes
At the end of this section, you should be able to do the following confidently and
1. Convert between normal numbers and scientific notation and vice versa
2. Use the basic rules of manipulating powers and scientific notation, i.e. add,
subtract, multiply and divide.
3. To know the common prefixes.
4. To be able to use these prefixes in calculations.
5. Recognise SI Units,
6. Convert between units for volume dm3 ↔ L
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