Numbers may be infinite, but our names for them aren’t. That’s why the metric system just got an update.
Several new prefixes have been introduced to describe incredibly large and incredibly small numbers.
They’re likely to be used in the future to describe computer data – just as terabytes are bigger than megabytes. But the new prefixes, including “ronna” and “quetta,” could also be used in other measurements. (The Earth weighs about 1 gram, according to the most recent issue of the journal Nature.)
Terabytes are small change compared to the newest measurements scientists have for describing extremely huge amounts of data. The prefix “ronna,” which stands for a factor of 10 to the 27th power (or the number 1 followed by 27 zeroes), and “quetta,” for 10 to the 30th power, were added to the International System of Units, the The journal Nature reported Friday.
Here are the new prefixes:
- Quetta – 10 to the 30th power or 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000.
- ronna – 10 to the 27th power or 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000.
- ronto – 10 to the negative 27th power.
- quecto – 10 to the negative 30th power.
Compared to a terabyte, which is 1,000 gigabytes, a ronnabyte equals a quadrillion (a thousand million million, or 1,000,000,000,000,000) terabytes. For some context, the Library of Congress holds about 10 terabytes of printed material, notes cloud storage company Backblaze. So one ronnabyte would hold one hundred trillion Libraries of Congress.
Consequently, a quettabyte, which amounts to a quintillion terabytes, would hold one hundred quadrillion copies of the printed material of the Libraries of Congress. Note: The Library of Congress currently has a digital collection of about 21 petabytes. A petabyte is 1,000 terabytes.
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Why were these new measurements approved by the General Conference on Weights and Measures at a meeting in France? Well, because scientists estimate that the amount of total data stored and generated will soon exceed the terms used to describe it, Nature physics reporter Elizabeth Gibney wrote.
“Now, the booming growth of the data sphere has prompted the governors of the metric system to agree on new prefixes beyond that magnitude, to describe the outrageously big and small,” she wrote.
That makes sense, Supriyo Bandyopadhyay, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Virginia Commonwealth University, told. “The number of bits of information that we deal with today is so astronomically large that we need to keep adding orders of magnitude to get a handle on it,” he said. “We have computers doing petaflops, that is one followed by fifteen zeros, of floating point operations per second. So, this is in the right track.”
Richard Brown, head of metrology at the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington, England, began working on a proposal several years ago, the journal Science reported in 2019. “Where there is a need that is not met, there is also a risk that unofficial units can take hold and that can cause confusion,” he said at the time.
Brown told Nature the annual volume of data generated globally had already surpassed one zettabyte (the equivalent of a billion terabytes), with annual data generated expected to surpass 1 yottabytes (a trillion terabytes) in the coming decade.
No new measurement prefixes have been approved since those in 1991. That year, when yotta and zetta were added, so were zepto and yocto for ever-smaller measurements. Similarly, the conference last week added ronto and quecto to represent the smallest of metrics.
While large measurements are needed, such small ones may not be as crucial, at least for now. “We’re not really sure that we’re measuring anything at that scale. But it is better to have the scale balanced and the prefixes relate to each other in some way that is consistent,” Georgette Macdonald, director-general of Canada’s Metrology Research Center in Halifax told Nature.
Some unofficial terms for a thousand yottabytes were beginning to be used, Brown told Nature. The new prefixes “will future-proof the measurement system for expressing these large quantities of data … and will allow clear and unambiguous communication of these measurements for many years to come,” Brown said.
Follow Mike Snider on Twitter: @mikesnider.
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