…..There is so much data stored in the world that we may run out of ways to quantify it.
Not long ago, when talking about computer storage, the gigabyte was considered an enormous amount of space to have on a personal computer. The likes of terabytes (1,000 gigabytes) were the domain of scientists and tech giants. But in an increasingly online world, companies such as Facebook and Google are storing never-imagined quantities of data. So now they currently deal in terms of petabytes. And beyond that there are exabytes, zettabytes, yottabytes and… nothing else; there is no language to describe at amount of data larger than that.
Google’s data centre in Douglas Country, Georgia: The amount of data held by the internet giant means there may soon need to be a new number created to measure the quantity. The largest current number with a recognised designated prefix is a ‘yotta’ – a digit with 24 zeroes. It was recognised at the 19th International Committee for Weights and Measures in 1991 along with zetta, for 21 zeroes (and their submultiple counterparts, zepto and yocto).
In March 2010 ago a campaign to name the number 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 ‘hella’ attracted strong support from scientists. An online petition that started in California – where the word ‘hella’ is slang for ‘many’ – called for the word to become an internationally recognised prefix, joining the likes of mega, kilo and giga. The word would apply to figures with 27 zeros after the first digit. Supporters of the campaign believe recent breakthroughs in science mean the International System of Units (SI) needs to go further with its classification of long numbers. Campaign organiser Austin Sendek, from the University of California, said at the time that the name hella would be an appropriate choice.
‘Since the SI system has traditionally adopted the last names of accomplished scientists for unit nomenclature, it follows that prefix designation should do the same,’ he said. ‘From this tradition comes the chance for the SI system to use nomenclature to honor a constantly overlooked scientific contributor: Northern California.’ The area is also notorious for the creation and widespread usage of the English slang ‘hella,’ which typically means ‘very,’ or can refer to a large quantity (e.g. ‘there are hella stars out tonight’).
The campaign has attracted the interest of a British chemist who helps advise the International Committee for Weights and Measures.Professor Ian Mills of the University of Reading said at the time: ‘The prefixes we introduced 20 years ago are still not widely used. There is no point making changes that nobody pays any attention to which would only make things more complicated. ‘At the moment we are focusing on more pressing issues, such as redefining the weight of the kilogram. But he is correct to say that we will need prefixes to express a greater range of magnitudes as science advances. The very fact that a student is asking a question like this is very encouraging.’
Prof Mills suggested that a simpler option would be for the committee to relax rules banning compound prefixes, so that, for instance, a hella could be expressed as a kiloyotta. Some suggest the next prefix will be ‘xenna’, after the Greek ‘ennea’ for nine, though they could also go with ‘nonna’, ‘enna’, or any other similar variation of the Greek or Latin.
But nothing can be decided until the International Committee for Weights and Measures convenes again. And until such time Google and Facebook can continue their march into the unknown.