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Why we need new numbers to handle the sheer amount of future data

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Abacus pic:Shutterstock

Say hello to the ronnabyte and quettabyte, the result of new extremely large number prefixes we need to handle the growing requirements of data science and digital storage.

It is predicted that by around 2030, human activity on the Planet Earth will produce a yottabyte of data per year. That's 10^24, or 1 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 bytes if you prefer to write it out in long-hand.

It’s a lot of data, so much so that a) Nature points out that a stack of DVDs holding it would stretch to Mars and b) the number that describes it wasn’t even given a name until 1991 when the Bureau International des Poids et Mesures bequeathed the world the yotta and the zetta prefixes. 

The problem is, where do you go next? Once you’ve reached and breached the yotta, what numbers can the next orders of magnitude be called?

There have been several informal suggestions floating around in recent years, with 10^27 often referred to as ‘bronto’ or ‘hella’, which are both rather entertaining but apparently the abbreviations are already in use elsewhere in the SI system of units. 

And so, on November 18, the participants at the 22nd General Conference on Weights and Measures (CGPM) voted the rona and the quetta prefixes be formally adopted.

  • ronna (symbol R) for 10^27 or 1 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000
  • quetta (symbol Q) for 10^30 or 1 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 

These are huge numbers. The entire planet weighs around a singe ronnagram (in other words, about a yottakilo if our maths is right). And they are balanced by some other new names at the other end of the scale, the ronto (10^-27) and quecto (10^-30), which are destined for quantum science and particle physics. As an example, an electron weighs around 1 quectogram.

The people involved in the process profoundly hope that they will not have to come up with other names too soon, partly as it’s taken around five years of discussion and debate to get here. There have been some guidelines that need to be followed — ‘a’ endings for heading up the scale, ‘o’ endings for going down; and a similar sound to Greek or Latin numbers. You also have to avoid swearwords in different languages (which puts the mockers on our suggestion of the fukabyte).

As for the future, Richard Brown, a metrologist at the UK National Physical Laboratory in Teddington who led the naming, reckons that compound prefixes such as a kiloQuetta for 10^33 are so on are probably the way to go rather than heading off into different alphabets. “But I think probably we’re a long way away from having to worry about this,” he says.

Fine, but you suspect that’s probably what they said in 1991 too…

Tags: Technology