The Quantum Pontiff

What prefix do you use for 1027? If Austin Sendak has his way, it will be hella (also Time article here.) The diameter of the observable universe is about one hellameter. As a fellow member of the club “people from Yreka, CA who do physics,” I strongly support Austin’s idea. Indeed it now tops my list of proposed prefix changes, a list that includes “tiny-” for 10-5 and my former front runner for 1027 “bronto-.”

But the real question is what do we call 10x when we don’t know x? I suggest the prefix “huh”. Examples: “My answer of about 5 huh-people wasn’t good enough to land me a job at McKinsey and Company.” “Einstein calculated that the cosmological constant was about huh inverse seconds squared.”

Another prefix that is needed is to express when you don’t really care what the hell the size is. For this I might suggest “meh.” Example: “The circumference of a African swallow’s leg is about mehmeters, thus rendering it incapable of carrying a coconut.”

Which reminds me. A while back I got a review copy of How Many Licks?: Or, How to Estimate Damn Near Anything by Aaron Santos. Aaron has written a delightful little book on order of magnitude estimations. It’s full of fun little questions (how long would it take you to dig to China using a spoon. Well not very long if you are Chinese!) and then a description of a guess on how to calculate these sizes. He of uncertain principles reviewed the book earlier, and while I agree with the criticisms, I also think perhaps people like the uncertain principlizer and myself aren’t really the best audience for this book. The proper audience, to me, seems to be elementary to high school kids who are just learning the idea that “rate times time equals distance.” Thus I wouldn’t give it as a present to a college age student, but for a young kid who shows some interest in science I think its extremely important to learn how to estimate and to think hard about sizes and what particular numbers really mean, and this book nicely fills this niche.


  1. #1 John Sidles
    April 24, 2010

    Nerds everywhere will want to download and memorize NIST Special Publication 811: Guide for the Use of the International System of Units (SI). For scientists, the two-page “Check List for Reviewing Manuscripts” is the Sermon on the Mount … the subsequent (well-written) 86-page explanation is the Old Testament.

    Doubt? Ambuguity? Compromise? Humor? Cynicism? *This* document has none of these things. Instead you will learn plenty of useful (and euphonic) prefixes like “zetta” and “yocto”. Thus, disputes about units can be definitively settled via this wonderful NIST reference … kinda like the Official Scrabble Dictionary!

  2. #2 Rocky Humbert
    April 25, 2010

    Dave: Great post!

    But don’t overlook “like” as a possible substitute for “huh.”

    It’s like totally awesome, dude.

  3. #3 Dave Bacon
    April 26, 2010

    @Rocky: The only way I can survive overhearing a “like”-fest on the bus is making a game of determining the “like”s per minute. There are like some amazing like teenage girls like out there (it’s hard for me not to add commas to that sentence, but I’m pretty sure there are no commas in like speech.)

  4. #4 Rob Monkey
    April 27, 2010

    Hmm, could the mehmeter end up being colloquially shorted to the “mehter?” It might sound like you’re speaking with an accent at first, but I relish my first opportunity to use it. “How long of a piece of string do you need?” “About a mehter.”

  5. #5 anandi
    April 27, 2010

    Baby Max is a lucky guy. This post made me spit out my diet Coke, because I was laughing so hard. I <3 the prefixes :)

  6. #6 Bryan Eastin
    May 12, 2010

    I vote that we get rid of the prefixes altogether. They just add an extra bit of memorization and conversion, better to have an abbreviation for “10 to the.” For example, we could use “up” and “down” for positive and negative powers of ten, i.e., “one point four up twenty-seven meters” for 1.4 x 10^27 m and “four down nine seconds” for 4 x 10^-9 s. This would also make it easier for us to use other powers, like 10^5.