Scientists are discovering stuff that is so freaking big — and so crazy small — that they had to come up with 2 new units of measurement.

A large rock landing on top of a beaker and scale with "Ronnagram" blinking in the forefront
Forget millimeters and megatons. A top meteorologist has created easier-to-use measures for stuff that is super big or crazy small, giving us a new way to frame the universe.Tyler Le/Insider

Science has a new name for stuff that's super big (and crazy small)

What the hell is a hellabyte? That's what Richard Brown wanted to know. Back in 2017, he'd heard the word mentioned on "More or Less," a BBC podcast devoted to exploring the accuracy of numbers and statistics in the public domain. Hellabyte, the host explained, was a new word people were using to refer to a whole hell of a lot of data. Brontobyte was another idea that was starting to gain popular acceptance. Both made Brown hella mad.

Not because people were making up words for the amounts of things. All words are made up, after all, and the words for measurements are more made up than most. But these words didn't follow the precepts of the metric system, the official standard for demarcating the universe into manageable, studyable chunks. Metric measurements — also known as the International System of Units, or SI — are managed by a formal international organization. The rulers of the rulers have rules, and "hellabyte" and "brontobyte" don't follow them.

The thing is, Richard Brown isn't just some guy. He's the head of metrology — the science of measuring things — at the United Kingdom's National Physical Laboratory. And he serves on the General Conference on Weights and Measures, the supreme authority that names the units of measure and defines the prefixes that tell you how big they are. His opinion, in other words, counts.

So Brown, spurred by the podcast, decided to come up with some prefixes of his own. It was time. Researchers across the sciences always push ever further into the realms of the really freaking big and really freaking tiny, but Brown suspected he and the other guardians of the metric system hadn't kept pace. The last time the chief wizards of metrology had added new prefixes was back in 1991, at the behest of analytical chemists who were struggling for words to express scant, molecular amounts of stuff. Since then, volumes of digital data have inflated exponentially, but words for those multiples have been in a drought. Hence the jokey words that ended up on the podcast.

Late last year, the General Conference on Weights and Measures met in Paris and approved the new prefixes that Brown came up with. They were not hella or bronto. Like other metric units, the new prefixes represent powers of 10 — just as 1,000 grams of mass, or 10 x 10 x 10, or 103, is a kilogram, and 1/1000 of a meter in length, or 10-3, is a millimeter. The prefixes Brown came up with are ronna and ronto for 1027 and 10-27 and quetta and quecto for 1030 and 10-30.

That means scientists now have simpler, easier-to-use names for stuff that is super big or crazy small. No longer do they have to say the visible universe is 1,000 yottameters in diameter. Now it's just 1 ronnameter, give or take a yottameter.

Before you allow your shoulders to rise even 1 quectometer's worth of a shrug at this news, let me tell you: This is nothing short of a new way to frame the universe. The way we count things says a lot about how we think about those things, and which things we think are important. The amount of destructive power an atomic bomb delivers was inconceivable until people saw it — and could describe it in kilotons. Then, when the idea of megatons came around, that summed up a whole new level of danger. Terminology gives us the mental armature to grasp such advances in a way that plain old scientific notation can't. How else can any of us be expected to get our brains around infinitesimally small subatomic particles produced in colliders at near the speed of light, new vistas of the edge of the universe unlocked by space telescopes, or amounts of dark matter with enough mass to bend space itself? New scientific prefixes like ronna and quetta aren't just for scientists. They let us recalibrate our imagination to match the scale of the cosmos.

The universe would be here even if people weren't, but the system we use to take its measure is a thing made by humans. In fact, SI units used to be based on actual, real-life physical artifacts. You could, with the right permission, heft the kilogram, the cylinder of platinum-iridium that was originally used to define mass. Today, after decades of work, each of those units is instead defined by an invariant physical property. A meter, for example, is the distance light travels in a vacuum in 1/299,792,458th of a second, no more or less. The SI is as tightly regulated as the ingredients in a cordon bleu mother sauce, and Brown spends most of his days stewing in it.

Scientists, of course, have other ways of expressing very big and very small numbers without adding prefixes. They're fine with scientific notation, saying "2 x 10-9 meters" instead of "2 nanometers." So why bother coming up with words at all? It's partly convenience — the ease of having a shared shorthand that works across disciplines and scales, from astronomical to quantum to digital. "If everyone sticks to SI prefixes," Brown says, "you don't have to go on Wikipedia to find out how long a light-year is or the power in 1 jansky." (A jansky is a measurement of radiation density favored by radio astronomers. And yes, even though I am 1.6 gigaseconds old, I did have to go on Wikipedia.)

So how did Brown come up with ronna and quetta? For starters, every SI unit and every SI prefix has an official abbreviation. That's what ticked Brown off about hellabyte and brontobyte. H and B were already taken by other units (the hour, the hectare, the byte, the bel — don't get him started).

In fact, just about every letter is already spoken for. "Really, the only two letters left in the English alphabet were R and Q," Brown says. "And then you throw into the mix that big numbers end in A, and small submultiples end in an O. Once you have that, you're halfway there."

Starts with R and Q, ends in A and O. Got it. But what to put in between? Brown dived into the history of measurement prefixes. The first ones were based on the Greek and Latin for the numbers they stand for (well, femto and atto came from Scandinavian, but still). "Then they went through this period where they were based on more abstract concepts, like the Greek for monstrous or the Italian for 'very small,'" Brown says. (That would be tera and pico, respectively.) "They've come out the other side. They're based on numbers again."

Here's where Brown got creative. His new prefixes would be the ninth and the 10th in both directions; Greek for "nine" is ennea; Greek for "10" is deka. Then commenced the neologizing. "You've got to work with them and craft them a little bit," Brown says. "They've got to sound right in English, and run together nicely with units." Starting with R and ennea, he worked his way to ronna and ronto. Starting with Q and deka, he wound up with quecca and quecto.

Next up was the horse-trading. Or, as Brown describes it, consulting with stakeholders. That's how he found out that queca, with one C, is an obscenity in Portuguese. Brown changed it to quetta. But that wasn't enough for everyone. A pressure metrologist at the Czech Metrology Institute named Dominik Pražák published papers arguing that Brown's plan posed "a risk to the future development of the SI," because it continued to use up the alphabet in Unicode, the letters that computers can read and write. Pražák proposed sticking to Greek words and letters.

But Greek has problems of its own. Look how confusing it is, Brown argues, that we use the Greek letter µ for the prefix micro. Humans often see it as a U, which is confusing, and it can really fluster a computer's typography. "Machine readability is one of the big challenges in science in general, but in particular in metrology," Brown says. "You have to have ways of unambiguously representing the units."

In the end, there wasn't much about the new prefixes that a metrologist could argue with. "The biggest step to overcome is getting the community to accept that new prefixes are needed," Brown says. "Whilst there is a lot of obsession about what the names are, they seem very important at the time when we approve them, but in the fullness of time people will forget any contention and they'll be well used."

Then it hits me. "But wait," I say to Brown, pushing up my nerd glasses so hard they enter my brain. "A ronto is a kind of monster in 'Star Wars.'"

"I realized that," Brown says. "It's some sort of bantha, right?" (Um, I guess so, if you think a giraffe-necked camel that runs around on its hind legs is some sort of shaggy horned elephant.) "You cannot avoid words that mean something else in some other context. Quetta is a city in Pakistan."

Ooh. Checkmate! Or whatever the winning move is in holographic chess.

When the time came at the Paris meeting for the general assembly to vote, the president asked representatives from each country to hold up cards indicating their approval. They did.

The metrologists had reached a consensus. About prefixes, at least. The conference, it turned out, had a bigger fight on its hands. "At the same meeting we passed a resolution that essentially begins the process of eliminating the leap second," says James Olthoff, the associate director for laboratory programs at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, who served as an American delegate. "There was a lot more hype and energy around that one."

Brown was, let's say, not displeased. "One is fairly confident by the time you get there that it will be approved," he says. "But it's still a great moment." His team had a party when he got back to Teddington, a suburb of London. They served "SI cakes," which I fervently hoped meant they were cut into precisely quantifiable sizes, and if you wanted just a half you had to ask for 50 centipieces. Alas, they were just cupcakes decorated with a little rainbow wheel showing all the approved SI basic units — from meter and kilogram right on through second, kelvin, ampere, candela, and mole.

Granted, Brown's four new nonsensical pairs of syllables sound more like the stage names of half-forgotten vaudeville comedians than scientific, concretized facts. But just as taking the measure of a thing defines its outlines, we assign meaning to things by naming them. In philosophy speak, that's known as a rigid designator. "It points forever at that common object," says Paul Skokowski, a physicist and philosopher who teaches at Stanford. "Naming is important, and it conveys meaning depending on the context." The new words shift our culture just a little. Quantities that would have struck us as comically huge once upon a time — $44 billion? With a B? Come on! — become commonplace, conceptually available.

And those concepts are coming faster and furiouser. Some of the units that made their way into the SI date back to the French Revolution. But the basic outlines of the modern system got approved only in 1960 — units and prefixes both. Atomic physicists asked for new prefixes for their big numbers in 1964. "It may well be that in the future further extension will be needed," one J. de Boer wrote in the journal Metrologia in 1968, "but for the time being this does not seem necessary."

The future was now. The next prefixes came just three years after de Boer's article. Then again in 1991. Given the scales on which technology has operated in the first quarter of the 21st century, from lasers that flash for just a few attoseconds to the total amount of digital data in the world pushing past 160 zettabytes, it feels as if we may have let things lie for too long. I don't know if the future will have quettabit computer networks or rontometer-scale wormholes, but I'm pretty sure the large and small of it will be hella weird. It'll be comforting to put a name to it all.

Adam Rogers is a senior correspondent at Insider.

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