Scientists are expanding the world’s measurement unit systems for the first time this century
Which is bigger: a ronna or a quetta?
Scientists meeting outside Paris on Friday – who expanded the world’s systems of units of measurement for the first time this century as the world’s population tops 8 billion – have the answer.
Rapid scientific progress and the vast global storage of data on the web, in smartphones and in the cloud means that the very terms used to measure things by weight and height also need to be expanded. And a British scientist led the push on Friday to incorporate new tongue twisting prefixes on a gigantic and even tiny scale.
“Most people know prefixes like milli- like milligram. But these are prefixes for the largest and smallest levels ever measured,” said Richard Brown, head of metrology at the UK’s National Physical Laboratory, who proposed the four new prefixes.
“Over the past 30 years, the data sphere has grown exponentially and data scientists have realized that they will no longer have words to describe storage tiers. These terms are coming, the future,” he explained.
There is the gargantuan “ronna” (it’s 27 zeros after the one) and its big brother the “quetta” – (it’s 30 zeros).
Their ant-sized counterparts are the “ronto” (27 zeros after the comma) and the “quecto” (with 30 zeros after the comma) – representing the smallest numbers needed for quantum science and the physics of particles.
Brown presented the new prefixes to officials from 64 nations attending the General Conference on Weights and Measures in Versailles – who endorsed them on Friday.
The conference, which takes place every four years in France, is the supreme body of the International Bureau of Weights and Measures. The new terms take effect immediately, marking the first additions since 1991.
Brown said the new terms also make it easier to describe things scientists already know — spinning out a list of the smallest and biggest things that mankind has discovered.
Did you know that the mass of an electron is a rontogram? And that a byte of data on a mobile increases the mass of the phone by a quectogram?
Farther from us, the planet Jupiter has a mass of two quettagrams. Whereas, incredibly, “the diameter of the entire observable universe is only one ronnameter,” Brown said.
He explained that the new names were not chosen at random: the first letter of the new prefixes had to be the one that was not used in the other prefixes and units.
“There were only the letters ‘R’ and ‘Q’ which were not already taken. Following this there is a precedent that they sound like Greek letters and that large digit prefixes end by an “A” and the small numbers by an “O”, he added.
“It was high time. [We] need new words as things develop,” Brown said. “In just a few decades, the world has become a very different place.”