Sunday, 7 March 2010

Hella Big - Helio Small

Stop Saying That!

There's a proposal, currently before the International Committee for Weights and Measures, to add the prefix "hella" to the internationally recognised system of powers of ten. As is standard issue today, the motion comes fully equipped with its own official petition, in the guise of a Facebook Group, currently standing at 51,598 signatures. Not a hella big number, when you consider they're trying to convince the notoriously conservative Comité international des poids et mesures, to adopt into their sanctum sanctorum, an arbitrary particle of borderline-offensive slang, originating in the Hunters Point neighbourhood of San Francisco.

But the idea's supporters, including University of California physics student Austin Sendek who started the campaign, reckon it would be a good way to honour the state's impressive record of scientific research. It would be the first such change since 1991, when "zetta" and "yotta" were added to represent respectively the 21st and 24th powers of 10 ("hella" is proposed to stand for the 27th).

In our industry of information technology, we have yet to see the introduction of the corresponding powers of 2 in common use. But now that the creaky old engines have finally begun their increasingly steep ascent from our accustomed 32-bit plateau, where we have been swinging happily in hammocks since Intel treated us, in 1985, to the 80386 processor, and the end of the segmented memory management hell we had thought would never end, it won't be so much longer before we are routinely allocating zettabytes and yottabytes in the cloud. Can the hellabyte be hella far behind?

Hello World

One corollary caveat I'd like to raise is the issue of inverse, or negative, powers of 10. These conventionally end in "-o", and with the changes introduced in 1991, have begun to mirror the positive powers; hence, "zepto" (10-21), "yocto" (10-24). Presumably the "hella" proposal, properly formulated (I haven't read it, that would spoil my punchline), should contain a similar provision such as "helio", or maybe "hello", for 10-27?

In which case, if the sun's output is 0.3 hellawatts, then a Watt must be 3.3 heliosuns.

Or: if the world's mass is 6 hellagrams, then six grams make a helloworld.

Thank you, thank you very much. I'm here all week.

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