New prefixes have been confirmed in the International System of Units, heralding ronto and quecto for small numbers and ronna and quetta for very large numbers, such as the amount of data on Internet servers
November 17, 2022 , updated November 18, 2022
New prefixes for the world’s largest and smallest numbers have been confirmed by a vote on the General conference on weights and measures (CGPM) in Versailles, France, on Friday. The suggested prefixes are ronna and quetta for very large numbers and ronto and quecto for very small ones.
The International System of Units (SI) is a standard, agreed upon by most scientists, that underlies any measurement. In addition to defining things like the kilogram and meter, it sets how very large and small numbers should be called.
The last extension of this naming scheme was in 1991, when numbers with 21 or 24 zeros were prefixed with zetta (1021) and yotta (1024) for the very large and zepto (10-21) and yogurt (10-24) for the little ones. There were few reasons to use them at the time, but the growing amount of data generated by the internet now makes them more useful – the amount of information is expected to reach 175 zettabytes by 2025.
“There’s been quite a bit of speculation in the popular media about what could be above a yottabyte,” says Richard Brown at the National Physical Laboratory, the center for measurement standards in the United Kingdom.
Brontobyte, for example, has been used informally by some to describe 1027 bytes, while Google’s unit converter has long since changed 1027 bytes in a hellabyte. But these don’t fit the SI naming scheme, because the letters “b” and “h” are already used for prefixes or commonly used for other units, Brown says. not become too deeply embedded in the scientific literature.
Brown helped draft the proposal that CGPM member states voted for on Friday. Since there were no objections, the two new prefixes for numbers with 27 and 30 zeros became ronna and quetta for large numbers, and ronto and quecto for small numbers, respectively.
Although they will become SI prefixes effective immediately, it may take some time for scientists to incorporate them into their work.
Some scientists doubt that they will be useful at all. “We tend to define our own units, which are only useful in terms of the things we’re actually looking at,” says astronomer Mike Merrifield at the University of Nottingham, UK.
Brown suggests that ronto and quecto could have applications in radio astronomy, such as for measuring the very weak strength of the cosmic microwave background, radiation left over from the Big Bang, but astronomers often use the non-SI Jansky for this, says Merrifield. .
However, the benefits to science communication are clear, says Brown. “You’ll be much better able to communicate what you mean when you use these standardized approaches.”
While the names seem arbitrary, they follow strict guidelines, says Brown. “R” and “q” were the only remaining letters in the English alphabet not used by other prefixes, the middle of the words loosely translated from the Greek or Latin term for how many times to multiply 1000 by to get to the numbers to come, he says, and the endings were because major prefixes always end in “a,” while minor prefixes end in “o.”
As for when we’ll see even bigger or smaller prefixes, Brown thinks we’ll be waiting at least 25 years. “It’s very hard to predict the future, but I suspect it will definitely help me, I think, for retirement and beyond.”
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