Meet the newest additions to the metric system

New prefixes will help researchers talk about exceedingly huge — or tiny — numbers

A photo of six old fashioned golden weight in a line from the smallest weight to the left and the biggest weight on the right, all on a black background

Data have been growing exponentially. In response, the metric system is getting its first update in three decades. Based on the new prefixes, Earth’s mass is about six ronnagrams. That’s a six followed by 27 zeroes!

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Meet the metric system’s newest prefixes: ronna-, quetta-, ronto- and quecto-.

The first two describe exceedingly large numbers. Ronto- and quecto- describe the tiniest of the tiny. These new terms were adopted November 18 at the 27th General Conference on Weights and Measures in Versailles, France. They mark the first expansion of the International System of Units, or SI system, in 30 years. The yocto-, zepto-, zetta- and yotta- prefixes were added back in 1991.

Numerically, ronna- is 1027. That’s a digit followed by 27 zeroes. Quetta- is 1030 (30 zeroes). Their tiny counterparts — ronto- and quecto- — also refer to 27 and 30 zeroes, but those come after a decimal point. Until now, yotta- and yocto- (24 zeros) capped off the metric system’s range.

Richard Brown is the head of metrology — the study of measuring — at the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington, England. He talked to Science News (SN) about what the latest SI expansion means for science. The following conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.

SN: Why do we need the new prefixes?

Brown: The quantity of data in the world is increasing exponentially. And we expect that to continue to increase — and probably accelerate — because of quantum computing, digitalization and things like that. At the same time, this quantity of data is starting to get close to the top range of the prefixes we currently use. People started to ask, what comes next?

SN: Where do the prefix names come from?

Brown: About five years ago, I heard a BBC podcast about these new names for quantities of data. And the two that they mentioned were brontobyte and hellabyte. Brontobyte, I think, comes from Brontosaurus being a big dinosaur. And hellabyte comes from “‘hell of a big number.”

The problem with those, from a metrology point of view (or measurement point of view), is they start with letters B and H. They already are in use for other units and prefixes. So we can’t have those as names. [It was clear] that we had to do something official because people were starting to need these prefixes. R and Q are not used for anything else, really, in terms of units or SI prefixes. [The prefix names themselves are] very, very loosely based on the Greek and Latin names for nine and 10.

SN: How will the prefixes be used?

Brown: The whole point of the International System of Units is that it’s an accepted global system. If you use [it], you will be understood.

When you use a prefix with a unit, it means that the number associated with the unit changes. And people like small numbers that they can understand. So you can express the mass of the Earth in terms of ronnagrams. It’s six ronnagrams. The mass of Jupiter is two quettagrams. Some good examples of [small numbers] are that the mass of an electron is about one rontogram. And the mass of one bit of data (as stored on a mobile phone) is around one quectogram.  

I think the use of a suitable prefix makes things more understandable. And I think we shouldn’t forget that even if there’s not always a direct scientific usage immediately, they will gain traction over time.

Deborah Balthazar was the Fall 2022 science writing intern at Science News. She holds a B.A. in biology with minors in English and chemistry from Caldwell University and is currently pursuing a master's degree in science journalism from New York University.

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