El Pais: new prefixes for huge and tiny numbers amid data and computing explosion

The explosion in computing capacity and data volumes is driving the need for new measurement and weight denominations. Representatives from 100 countries met at the 27th meeting of the General Conference on Weights and Measures (CGPM, the acronym in French) in mid-November “to introduce four new prefixes to the International System of Units (SI) with immediate effect.”

The new SI prefixes to be used for multiples and submultiples of units are the ronna, quetta, ronto and quecto. Now we can say the Earth’s mass is approximately six ronnagrams (5.975 trillion tons), and an electron’s mass is one quectogram.

The addition of measurement prefixes is fairly commonplace. The CGPM adopted peta and exa in 1975, and a few years later added zetta (1021), zepto (10-21), yotta (1024) and yocto (10-24). It also acknowledges that the main trigger for the addition of new prefix names is the growing requirements of data science and digital storage, which already use prefixes at the top of the existing range to express large amounts of digital information.

Richard Brown, chief metrologist at the UK’s National Physical Laboratory, and the CGPM agree that adopting the new prefix names was essential due to the demands of data science, the steady growth in data volume accelerated by widespread digitization, and the advent of new technologies, such as quantum computing. “These new prefixes,” said Brown, “will enable clear and unambiguous communication of these measurements for many years to come.”

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