Physics Lens

Standard Form and Prefixes

This little applet is designed to allow students to change the order of magnitude and to use any common prefix to observe how the physical quantities are being written. To view this applet in a new tab, click here.

Standard form (also known as scientific notation) is a way of writing very large or very small numbers that allows for easy comparison of their magnitude by using the powers of ten. Any number that can be expressed as a number, between 1 and 10, multiplied by a power of 10, is said to be in standard form.

For instance, the speed of light in vacuum can be written as 3.00 × 108 m s–1 in standard form.

When a prefix is added to a unit, the unit is multiplied by a numerical value represented by the prefix. e.g.     distance = 180 cm = 180 x 10-2 m = 1.80 m

The purpose of using prefixes is to reduce the number of digits used in the expression of values. Hence, students can use the prefix slider to find a user-friendly expression, such as 682 nm instead of 0.000000682 m.

The ten prefixes used are:


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