Will 'hella' follow mega, giga and tera?

A physics student lobbies to make a California slang term become the next unit of metric measurement

One day in the distant future, when our descendents complain about their sluggish "yottabit" Internet connections, they may -- thanks to the efforts of a University of California Davis student -- state their desired network performance in hellabits.

Physics student Austin Sendek has started a campaign to make "hella-" the next official prefix for metric measurements, and his effort has begun to gather momentum, at least in terms of popularity.

By his own reckoning, he has until September to convince as many people as possible to start using this bit of northern California slang to refer to the measurements of all things in the 10^27 scale.

"There is no question as to what you mean. If you say something weighs hellagrams, you'd think 'Well that's a lot of grams,'" he said.

Thus far the Facebook page he has started to get the word out has attracted almost 60,000 votes of approval, or "Likes" in Facebook speak, for the idea.

The International System of Units, otherwise known as the metric system, has a set of prefixes to designate the mathematical scale of the unit being measured. This is where we get the mega, giga, tera and peta prefixes.

At present, SI's largest official unit of measurement is the yotta, which is 10^24, or a quadrillion. Because units of measurement jump by powers of three, the next as-of-yet unnamed prefix would be 10^27, or 1 octillion, which is a 1 followed by 27 zeros.

The idea started as a lark. Sendek first thought of the idea while in a physics class, when he asked his labmate how many volts were in an electric field they were studying, and his labmate answered, offhandedly, "hellavolts."

"I chuckled to myself and thought it would be funny if hellavolt were a real thing," he said. He knew that existing prefixes ended in the letter "a," such as mega and giga, so the term fit.

According to one definition in the Urban Dictionary, the term Hella "is commonly used in place of 'really' or 'very' when describing something." It is a contraction of the word "helluva," itself a contraction.

Legend has it that the term originated from the San Francisco area. In any case, it has long been a widely used term in those parts, dating back perhaps as far as the late 1970s.

Sendek said he started a Facebook page on the idea mainly as a joke, but received such an overwhelming response, especially from those in the scientific community, he started to campaign in earnest. He soon set up a blog and an online store to further propagate the idea.

Certainly, we seem to be hurdling into an era of such large scales.

Earlier this week, IT research firm IDC, in a study backed by EMC, predicted that the amount of digital information stored this year will be 1.2 zettabytes, and by 2020 it will be 35 zettabytes.

A zettabyte (10^21) is one level below that of the yotta.

Some things could already be best measured at the hellalevel. Sendek calculated that, for instance, the sun has a mass of 2.2 hellatons, and would release energy at 0.3 hellawatts (300 yottawatts for the more traditionally minded).

On the other end of the spectrum, Georgia Tech Quantum Institute researchers recently made the smallest ever measurement of force, that of an electrical field that exerted a tug of only 174 yoctonewtons. More sensitive instruments of tomorrow would no doubt be capable of even finer levels of measurement.

As a point of clarification, the SI seems to keep a naming convention of using an "o" instead of an "a" as the last letter for measurements of a very small nature. So a Yotta is 10^24, and a Yotto is 10^-24. So, as one Facebook poster pointed out, this would dictate that things of a 10^-27 would be "hello"-scaled.

While we live in an age when Facebook campaigns can wield considerable influence, as Betty White's upcoming appearance this weekend on "Saturday Night Live" demonstrates, Sendek has a long road ahead of him in getting hella recognized.

The SI prefix naming is overseen by the French International Bureau of Weights and Measures, which last approved new prefixes in 1991, with zetta and yotta. Sendek spoke with Ian Mills, a University of Reading professor who presides over the Consultative Committee for Units, a group that advises the French standards body. Mills told Sendek that he would bring up Sendek's suggestion at the next committee meeting, in September.

"He said he thought the idea was very entertaining and he'd get a few laughs from it, but he wasn't sure the scientists would take it seriously," Sendek said.

In the meantime, Sendek is working to get the proposed prefix into everyday use. "If enough people start using it, it will turn into habit," he said.

He has heard that a number of professors have started to use the phrase in their lectures and conversations. He also got wind that a few engineers at Google thought about putting the hella unit into the Google calculator, though the idea was nixed by management.

Sendek mentioned that adopting the term would be a homage to all the scientific work done by northern California institutions, such as Stanford University, the University of California's schools in the area, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and others.

He also was nonplussed by the lighthearted nature of the word itself.

"Science should be approached with a sense of humor. It's easy for people to get so serious about science that they lose sight of the big picture, which is basically we're a bunch of humans trying to figure out how to put the universe into an equation," he said.

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Joab Jackson

IDG News Service

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