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Ronnagrams and quettameters: Scientists confirm new prefixes for big and small measurements

Large prefixes are needed to meet the exponentially growing size requirements of data science and digital storage (file photo)

Scientists have officially confirmed new prefixes to express the largest and smallest measurements in the world, from the unimaginably large to the infinitely small.

Joining the ranks of well-known prefixes such as kilo are ‘ronna’ and ‘quetta’ for the larger definite numbers and ‘ronto’ and ‘quecto’ for the smaller ones.

Ronna is 1 followed by 27 zeros – a billion billion billion – while quetta is 1 followed by 30 zeros – a thousand times larger.

At the other end of the scale, ronto is a fraction of 1 with 27 decimal places, while quecto is even a thousand times smaller.

Large prefixes will help classify the exponentially growing size requirements of data science and digital storage, while small prefixes will be useful for quantum science and particle physics.

To put the new measurements into context, 10 quectograms is roughly the mass of a single bit of data stored on your mobile phone.

At the other end of the scale, Jupiter’s mass is about 2 quettagrams, while Earth’s mass is six ronnagrams.

Large prefixes are needed to meet the exponentially growing size requirements of data science and digital storage (file photo)

Large prefixes are needed to meet the exponentially growing size requirements of data science and digital storage (file photo)

The new prefixes

THE GREATEST

Ronna – 1 followed by 27 zeros

Quetta – 1 followed by 30 zeros

THE SMALLEST

Ronto – a zero, the decimal point, 26 zeros then 1

(0.000000000000000000000000001)

Quecto – a zero, the decimal point, 29 zeros then 1

(0.000000000000000000000000000001)

Dr Richard Brown of the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) led the proposal recommending the new names, which have been added to the International System of Units (SI), the agreed worldwide standard for the metric system.

The change was voted on by scientists around the world and government officials attending the 27th General Conference on Weights and Measures, which governs the SI and meets approximately every four years at the Palace of Versailles, west of Paris .

‘The new prefixes came into effect when the vote passed last Friday,’ Dr Brown told MailOnline. “It may take a few days for official documents and websites to be updated.”

Dr. Brown said the new prefixes, like all other prefixes, are universally available for use with all units.

‘So you can have ronnameters and ronnagrammes, just like you can have kilometers, kilograms, kilowatts etc.,’ he told MailOnline.

Ronna and quetta refer to the very large, while ronto and quectoc refer to the very small.

For example, a rontogram such as can be written 10-27 grams, which can also be expressed as 0.000000000000000000000000001 grams

A quectogram is even smaller – 0.000000000000000000000000000001 grams.

Earth's mass can now be expressed in six ronnagrams after scientists vote to add new metric prefixes

Earth’s mass can now be expressed in six ronnagrams after scientists vote to add new metric prefixes

Number of digital bits ‘will surpass atoms on Earth by 2170’

The number of digital bits will exceed the number of atoms on Earth within 150 years, according to a new study that warns of an impending “information catastrophe”.

By 2170, the world will be “mostly computer-simulated and dominated by digital bits and computer code”, according to the study.

There will be 133 quindecillion bits (133 followed by 48 zeros) in existence – the same as the estimated number of atoms on the planet.

However, the power needed to support the transfer of information will be equal to all the power currently produced on Earth, leading to ethical and environmental concerns.

Read more

The new prefixes should “future the system” and meet global needs for higher numbers – at least for the next 20 to 25 years, according to Dr Brown.

He said he got the idea for the update when he saw media reports using unauthorized prefixes for data storage such as brontobytes and hellabytes.

For example, Google has been using hella for bytes since 2010 following the advent of big data – but this is an unofficial term.

“These were terms that were circulating unofficially, so it was clear that the SI had to do something,” Dr Brown said.

As to why these terms were not officially adopted, metric prefixes should be shortened to their first letter – but B and H have already been taken, excluding bronto and hella.

The only letters that weren’t used for other units or other symbols were R and Q – hence the new choices.

Convention is that larger prefixes end in an A and smaller ones in an O, while the middle of words is loosely based on Greek and Latin for nine and 10.

This is the first time since 1991 that new prefixes have been added to the SI.

That year, chemists eager to express vast molecular quantities stimulated the addition of zetta and yotta.

A yotta is a 1 followed by 24 zeros, while a zetta is a 1 followed by 21 zeros.

Google has been using hella for bytes since 2010 following the advent of big data - but it's an unofficial term (file photo)

Google has been using hella for bytes since 2010 following the advent of big data – but it’s an unofficial term (file photo)

The SI is the only globally accepted system of units of measurement and provides units for every type of measurement.

In 2019, scientists changed several SI units so that they are measured against “fundamental constants that can be observed in the natural world”.

For example, the weight of a kilogram was previously defined by a block of metal contained in glass bells in a vault in Saint-Cloud, France.

The problem was that the artifact was susceptible to damage, and environmental factors could alter its weight, even slightly.

The International Prototype Kilogram, aka Le Grand K, stored in a vault in Paris, was replaced by a formula using Planck's constant in 2019. The IPK was losing mass, so the metrology community redefined the kilogram using Planck's constant.

The International Prototype Kilogram, aka Le Grand K, stored in a vault in Paris, was replaced by a formula using Planck’s constant in 2019. The IPK was losing mass, so the metrology community redefined the kilogram using Planck’s constant.

A kilogram is now defined by Planck’s constant, a fundamental physical constant observed in the natural world that is inherently stable.

To measure Planck’s constant, scientists use an instrument known as the Kibble balance, named after the late British physicist Bryan Kibble, who invented the technique more than 45 years ago.

The kibble scale uses electromagnetic forces, provided by a coil of wire sandwiched between two permanent magnets, to balance the mass of one kilogram.

HOW WOULD A CROQUETTE BALANCE MEASURE PLANCK’S CONSTANT?

A Kibble scale would redefine the kilogram by giving scientists the most accurate measurement yet of Planck’s constant.

It comprises a coil of wire inside a magnetic field which is suspended from the arm of a balance.

A one-kilogram mass is also placed on this arm exerting a downward force due to gravity.

An electric current passes through the coil generating a force whose magnitude depends on the size of the current, the field strength and the length of the coil.

The value of the current varies until the downward force of the kilo mass is balanced by the force of the coil in the magnetic field.

The mass is then removed and the coil is moved through the field, which induces a voltage in the coil.

By tracking current and voltage, Planck’s constant can be measured in terms of mass, length, and time.

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