New measures of size as the world’s people exceed 8 billion

PARIS (AP) — Which is bigger: Rhone or couette?

Scientists meeting outside Paris on Friday – who have expanded the world’s systems of measurement units for the first time this century as the world’s population tops 8 billion – have the answer.

Rapid scientific progress and the vast global storage of data on the web, smartphones and the cloud mean that the very terms used to measure things in weight and size also need to be expanded. And a British scientist led the push Friday to incorporate bold new tongue-twisting prefixes on the giant and even tiny scales.

“Most people are familiar with prefixes like milligrams as in milligrams. But these are prefixes for the largest and smallest levels ever measured,” Dr. Richard Brown, head of Metrology at the UK’s National Physical Laboratory who proposed the four new prefixes, told The Associated Press.

“Over the last 30 years, the data sphere has grown exponentially and data scientists have realized that they will no longer have words to describe the levels of storage. These terms are upcoming, the future,” he explained.

There’s the giant “ronna” (that’s 27 zeros after one) and its big brother the “quetta” – (that’s 30 zeros).

Their ant-sized equivalents are “ronto” (27 decimal places) and “quecto” (with 30 decimal places) — representing the smallest numbers needed for quantum science and particle physics.

Brown presented the new prefixes to officials from 64 countries attending the General Conference on Weights and Measures in Versailles, outside Paris — who approved them on Friday.

The conference, held every four years in France, is the highest authority of the International Bureau of Weights and Measures. The new terms take effect immediately, marking the first time since 1991 that new additions have been made.

Brown said the new terms also make it easier to describe things scientists already know about — breaking away from a list of the smallest and largest things humanity has discovered.

Did you know that the mass of an electron is a radiograph? And that one byte of data on a cell phone increases the mass of the phone by one kectogram?

Far from home, the planet Jupiter has a mass of just two kw. While, incredibly, “the diameter of the entire observable universe is only one denominator,” Brown said.

He explained how the new names were not chosen at random: The first letter of the new prefixes had to be one not used in other prefixes and units.

“There were only the letters ‘r’ and ‘q’ that were not already taken. After that, there is a precedent that they sound similar to Greek letters and that large number prefixes end with an ‘a’ and smaller numbers with an ‘o,’” he added.

“It was about time. (We need new words as things expand,” Brown said. “In just a few decades, the world has become a very different place.”

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