From ronto and quecto to ronna and quetta: to name the smallest and the largest, the language gets four prefixes.
Milli, centi, deci, deca, hecto or kilo: we are well acquainted with the physical prefixes with which we make kilograms from grams and centimeters from meters in everyday life. The diminutive prefixes stand for one-thousandth, one-hundredth, and one-tenth, respectively, of a basic unit such as meter or gram or litre; the magnifying for tenfold, a hundredfold, and a thousandfold of it.
Our imagination has a more difficult time with the more extreme prefixes from the international system of units, such as the tera (a trillion times the base unit) or the pico (a trillionth of it). That doesn’t get any better, now that four newcomers have been added to the row of well-known prefixes such as kilo and milli: quetta and ronna for the largest numbers, ronto and quecto for the smallest.
Hell of a lot of bytes
This was decided by scientists and government representatives last weekend at the 27th General Conference on Weights and Measures in the Palace of Versailles, west of Paris. The prefixes ronna and quetta stand for 10²7 and 10³° (a 1 followed by 27 and 30 zeros respectively), ronto and quecto for 10?²7 and 10?³° (respectively 27 and 30 digits after the decimal point). It is the first adjustment of the international prefix system since 1991, when the zetta (10²¹), zepto (10?²¹), yotta (10²4) and Yocto (10?²4) added.
The latest prefixes come none too soon. Due to the increasing amount of data that data companies like Google have to process, they had already started using unofficial prefixes on their own. That gave words like brontobytes and hellabytes (for 10²7 bytes, where the prefix hella stands for hell of a lot of).
Six rounds of earth
The question is whether we are ready-prefixed with that. On Earth, perhaps, with a planet mass of six ronnagrams. And the mass of Jupiter, the heaviest planet in our solar system, is also manageable at 2 quettagrams. But for alien masses, the new prefixes are still a size too small. The sun, for example, has a mass of two thousand quettagrams. And the galaxy, which contains billions of stars, weighs one and a half trillion times more than the sun.
Even with the diminutive prefixes there is still room for continued diminution. To name the mass of an electron, slightly less than a quectogram, the current prepositional system suffices. But for the description of what happened at the beginning of the Big Bang, let’s say during the first 10?44 seconds, even the ronto and the quecto are much too large to elegantly indicate the passage of time. That is why the Bureau for Weights and Measures already has proposals for even smaller prefixes than the ronto and the quecto, such as the vendeko (10?³³), as for even greater than the ronna and the quetta, such as the vendeka (10³³) and the udekta (10³6).