Hella Number: Scientists' New Word For 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000?

05/02/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Amanda Ng Huffington Post

Facebook, home to a number of grassroots campaigns, has a new cause that's gaining some traction. The Official Petition to Establish 'Hella-' as the SI Prefix for 10^27 has over 22,000 members calling for the International System of Units, or the "SI" for "Systeme Internacional", to officially designate "hella-" as the prefix for 10^27, or 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000.

The largest number with a prefix is currently 10^24, known as a "yotta." More commonly used prefixes are "kilo," "mega," "giga," and "tera."

As reported by the Telegraph, the campaign was started by Austin Sendek, a student at the University of California at Davis.

Sendek stated on the Facebook page,

[...] In our world of increasing physical awareness and experimental precision, this number is no longer a satisfactory 'upper bound' in scientific nomenclature. The analysis of many physical phenomena reveals natural quantities in excess of 27 orders of magnitude, a number which is currently ignored by the SI system.

Designating a prefix for 10^27 is of critical importance for scientists in all fields. This number is significant in many crucial calculations, including the wattage of the sun, distances between galaxies, or the number of atoms in a large sample.

Sendek chose "Hella"-- Northern California slang for "a lot"--in order to pay homage to Northern California's contribution to science. U.C. Berkeley, .U.C. Davis, Stanford University, Lawrence Livermore Laboratory and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory are all located in Northern California.

He also states in the petition, "Countless contributions to science have been made by these and other local schools." For example, elements 93-103 were all discovered at Lawrence Berkley National Laboratory.

Sendek contacted the head of the Consultative Committee for Units, Professor Ian Mills, to gain support for his petition. In a letter back to Sendek, Mills promised bring up the petition at the committee's next meeting, but did not think things would move forward. In an interview with the Telegraph, Mills said,

At the moment we are focusing on more pressing issues, such as redefining the weight of the kilogram. But he is correct to say that we will need prefixes to express a greater range of magnitudes as science advances. The very fact that a student is asking a question like this is very encouraging.

Mills also told the Telegraph that, even if a prefix was accepted, there is little chance it would be known as a "hella" as most prefixes are derived from Latin or Greek words for numbers, and the committee would rather not deviate from this pattern.