“You know zetta and yotta and ronna and quecca
Zepto and yocto and ronto and quecto
But do you recall the biggest number of all.”
It sure is hard keeping up with technology. As humorist Dave Barry once wrote, they should have a large garbage can at the end of the check out lane at computer and electronic stores, because by the time you pay, it is obsolete.
I confess, I have become resigned to the fact that I will not be able to master every new technology that comes along. With the hand-me down Alexa we got from our son, I still feel I have the upper hand in that I know if I yell “OFF”, it stops. Alas, that is about all I can do. At least it is better than my mother’s story of my great-grandmother who came to America when she was quite old and never learned English. When this new fangled thing called the telephone rang in the kitchen, she would yell at it in Yiddish, “klop nit” (shut-up). The telephone kept ringing.
But now I see that we have a new challenge; not technology itself but the change in vocabulary to be able to talk about the new technology[i].
According to an article in Science Magazine, metrologists… Now let’s pause here. What is a metrologist? This is a career choice I did not know existed. Apparently they are people who study measurement. Sounds like watching cement drying.
Anyway, metrologists get together under the auspices of the International Bureau of Weights and Measures which of course is located in Paris. How else could you entice metrologists to want to get together unless you gather in Paris? They recently proposed a new set of prefixes to help deal with new technology like big data and quantum physics.
Most of us know about prefixes like kilo for thousands (1,000) and mega for millions (1,000,000) and even giga for billion. Some of us know about milli for one thousandth (0.001) and micro for one millionth (0.000001). In the past decade we saw the emergence of new big prefixes like Tera and peta while on the small side we have nano and pico.
But apparently giga and pico are not big enough or small enough. The metrologists at the International Bureau of Weights and Measures came to the rescue. Zetta is 10 to the 21st power. That’s 1 followed by 21 zeros. In other words, a giga-giga-kilo. If Zetta is not enough, you have yotta at 10 to the 24th, ronna at 10 to the 27 and quecca at 10 to the 30th. Again, a guecca hard drive could store 1 followed by 30 zeros worth of bytes. It will take some time before McDonald’s signs say “over 1 Quecca hamburgers sold”
Looking at the other side of the spectrum, we have zepto at 10 to -21 or 1 divided by the number 1 followed by 21 zeros. Not small enough? How about yocto or ronto at 10 to the -24th and 10 to the minus 27th respectively. And pulling up the rear, so to speak, is quecto at 10 to the minus 30. I think that is a millionth, millionth, millionth, millionth… oh never mind.
Now these are just proposed names. You still have a chance to submit comments and suggestions for new names. In 2010, “hella” was suggested for the prefix for 10 to the 27th. Although a kind of like “hella” as in “my hellabyte hard drive has crashed again” and finding out it is due to a piece of dust that was one yocto in diamter. The problem is what could be bigger than a hella of a big number. And our normal discourse has become coarse enough already.
It seems natural to me that Mega (ten to the sixth) is big and Micro (ten to the minus six) is small. However, it is not clear that in my remaining years I will ever learn that Ronna (10 to the 37th) is big but Ronto (10 to the minus 27) is small. And don’t get me started on distinguishing a quecca from a quecto.
What I do know is that I will need none of these prefixes when I balance my checkbook.
And finally let’s not forget the biggest number of all. Over a hundred years ago, a nine-year old coined the term googol for 10 to the 100 power. Soon after, a mathematician created the Googolplex which is 10 to the power of Googol. You don’t want to know how many zeros are needed to write Googolplex.
However, you do know that the search engine and company
Google was named after Google. Someday,
we may all be investing in a company called Quecca. Or was it Quecto?
[i] “Metric Prefixes Sought for Extreme Numbers”, Science Magazine, February 15, 2019, page 681