Say hello to ronnagrams and quettametres: International scientists gathered in France on Friday voted on new metric prefixes to express the world’s largest and smallest measurements, driven by a growing amount of data.
It is the first time in more than three decades that new prefixes have been added to the International System of Units (SI), the agreed global standard for the metric system.
Joining the ranks of well-known prefixes like kilo and milli are ronna and quetta for the largest numbers – and ronto and quecto for the smallest.
The change was voted on by scientists and government representatives from around the world attending the 27th General Conference on Weights and Measures, which governs SI and meets roughly every four years at the Palace of Versailles, west of Paris.
The UK’s National Physical Laboratory, which has led the push for the new prefixes, confirmed the decision had been passed in a statement.
Prefixes make it easy to express large quantities – for example, always referring to a kilometer as 1000 meters or a millimeter because one-thousandth of a meter would quickly become cumbersome.
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Since SI was founded in 1960, scientific need has led to an increase in the number of prefixes. The last time was in 1991, when chemists wanting to express massive molecular amounts catalyzed the addition of zeta and utah.
yottametre is one followed by 24 zeros.
But even a powerful iota isn’t enough to handle the world’s voracious appetite for data, according to Richard Brown, head of metrology at the UK’s National Physical Laboratory.
“In terms of expressing data in yottabytes, which is currently the highest prefix, we’re very close to the limit,” Brown told AFP.
“On the lower end, it makes sense to have symmetric expansion, which is useful for quantum science, particle physics — when you’re measuring really small things.”
– Earth’s new weight –
New prefixes can simplify how we talk about some pretty big things.
“If we think of mass, rather than distance, the Earth weighs approximately six rongrams,” Brown said, meaning six followed by 27 zeros.
He added, “Jupiter, that’s about two kilograms” — two followed by 30 zeros.
Brown said he had the idea for the update when he saw media reports that unauthorized prefixes such as brontobytes and hellabytes were used to store data. Google in particular has been using hella for bytes since 2010.
“Those were informal terms, so it was clear that SI had to do something,” he said.
However, metric prefixes should be shortened to just the first letter – B and H are already taken, with bronto and hella excluded.
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“The only two letters that are not used for other units or other symbols are R and Q,” Brown said.
Convention dictates that larger prefixes end in an A, and smaller prefixes end in an O.
“Word middle is very, very loosely based on Greek and Latin for nine and 10,” said Brown.
He added that the new prefixes should “future-proof the system” and satisfy the world’s need for higher numbers — at least for the next 20 to 25 years.