Extreme Numbers get New Names

L-Erbgħa, November 23, 2022

By the 2030s, the world will generate around a yottabyte of data per year — that’s 1024 bytes, or the amount that would fit on DVDs stacked all the way to Mars. Now, the booming growth of the data sphere has prompted the governors of the metric system to agree on new prefixes beyond that magnitude, to describe the outrageously big and small.

Representatives from governments worldwide, meeting at the General Conference on Weights and Measures (CGPM) outside Paris on 18 November, voted to introduce four new prefixes to the International System of Units (SI) with immediate effect. The prefixes ronna and quetta represent 1027 and 1030, and ronto and quecto signify 10−27 and 10−30. Earth weighs around one ronnagram, and an electron’s mass is about one quectogram.

This is the first update to the prefix system since 1991, when the organization added zetta (1021), zepto (10−21), yotta (1024) and yocto (10−24). In that case, metrologists were adapting to fit the needs of chemists, who wanted a way to express SI units on the scale of Avogadro’s number — the 6 × 1023 units in a mole, a measure of the quantity of substances. The more familiar prefixes peta and exa were added in 1975 (see ‘Extreme figures’).

Today, the driver is data science, says Richard Brown, a metrologist at the UK National Physical Laboratory in Teddington. He has been working on plans to introduce the latest prefixes for five years, and presented the proposal to the CGPM on 17 November. With the annual volume of data generated globally having already hit zettabytes, informal suggestions for 1027 — including ‘hella’ and ‘bronto’ — were starting to take hold, he says. Google’s unit converter, for example, already tells users that 1,000 yottabytes is 1 hellabyte, and at least one UK government website quotes brontobyte as the correct term.

“From a metrology point of view, this sort of horrified me, because these are completely unofficial terms,” says Brown. In the past, unofficial terms have been adopted into the SI, he says. But the problem with hella and bronto is that their symbols (h and b) are already used in the metric system for other units or prefixes: h, for example, stands for hecto (the rarely used 102) and H is the henry, the unit of inductance. This is the main reason they can’t stand as formal terms, he says. “It’s not especially that I wanted to be a killjoy, although that comes into it as well,” he adds, smiling.

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