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March 4, 2010

'Hella' proposed as standard scientific prefix

Posted: 06:28 PM ET

"1,000 yottabytes? That's hellabytes."

So proclaims a T-shirt sold by the campaign to make "hella" the prefix for 10^27, an extremely large number written out as a 1 followed by 27 zeroes.

Apparently, there is not yet a standard prefix for this number, in the way that "kilo" is "thousand" and "mega" is "million." That's how you know that a "kilobyte" is 1,000 bytes and a "megabyte" is 1,000,000 bytes. But so far only prefixes for units up to 10^24 ("yotta") have names, according to the International System of Units (SI). Here are the established prefixes.

Now comes a Facebook page (with more than 37,000 fans and counting), and an online petition to get "hella," a hip, Northern California slang term that means "a whole lot of" as a standard prefix for 10^27.

Here's an excerpt from the Facebook page, written by physics student Austin Sendek at the University of California, Davis:

Addressing this issue presents an exciting opportunity. 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. From this tradition comes the chance for the SI system to use nomenclature to honor a constantly overlooked scientific contributor: Northern California.

According to Sendek, since Northern California institutions have contributed greatly to scientific endeavors, it makes sense to honor the region with "hella." Apparently, that's where people originally started saying things like, "there are hella stars out tonight."

Speaking of stars, the word "hella" would be useful to describe the sun's energy, which is 4 x 10^27 watts according to NASA. That would be 4 hellawatts according to the proposal.

What do you think about bringing "hella" into scientific standard practice?

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