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Probability of first significant digit |

In the first years of my Physics study (1965...), we had to use logarithmic tables with eight decimal places for our calculations, and I wondered at the fact that the first pages in that rather voluminous book were much more worn than the pages in the middle and the end of the book. I could not imagine that the reason for this could be that the users of these tables turned pages from the first page and on looking-up the requested number entrance. I did not follow this matter up, but later I became aware of that the American astronomer Simon Newcomb had noticed the same pecularity and proposed a probability distribution law for the first significant digits. For data containing a reasonable large number of numbers the distribution in many cases look like this: The probability of the first significant digit to be 1 is almost 1/3 (30,1%) and to be 1, 2 or 3 is more than 50% (60,2%)! The law tends to apply better if the data values covers many orders of magnitude (that is many different powers of 10). It is evident that not all kinds of data will fulfil this distribution law. A table of grown-up people's weights in kg, evidently will have quite a different distribution concerning the first significant figure. To explain this phenomena you need to do some assumptions. The most common explanation is based on the assumption that, given data extracted from some source from "real life", the distribution of the first significant digit must be independent of the unit system. In practice, to get a stochastically significant result, the table of data must be large and cover a large range of orders of magnitude. See also: |

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12-12-2011
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