We may still be a ways from worrying how many yottabytes your computer can hold, but the international standards community has added two new prefixes for even bigger numbers than that — ronna for 1027 and quetta for 1030.
At a conference in Paris last week, representatives from numerous governments got together to vote on the official names for these enormous magnitude indicators. The last time they did this was in 1991, when the now-familiar zetta and yotta were added, as well as zepto and yocto for their respective negative powers of 10.
As you may have guessed, we also now have terms for 10-27 and 10-30: ronto and quecto.
While there are few things that can't adequately be described in terms of the existing prefixes, it's kind of nice to have single units for some familiar scales. For instance, as Nature points out, Earth's mass is about a ronnagram, and the mass of an electron is about a quectogram. Convenient when you're weighing them in the kitchen.
More importantly, though, this provides a little room to grow for data science, in which we are already talking about "exascale" computing and zettabytes of data — in fact, as a planet we're expected to produce a yottabyte per year in the 2030s, unless some blessed intervention takes place. What comes next?
If you asked a week ago, the answer might be "hellabytes" and then "brontobytes," which are actually great terms but, as Richard Brown, the British Metrologist who proposed the prefixes, warned Nature, "completely unofficial." Sadly, the prefixes also conflict with existing abbreviations, and probably no one in Southern California would countenance having to use "hella" in any official context.
"It’s not especially that I wanted to be a killjoy, although that comes into it as well," Brown said — to the victor the spoils and all that, but no need to rub it in, Richard. At any rate, the conference cited "the importance of timely action to prevent unofficial prefix names being de facto adopted in other communities" as one of the reasons for adopting the new ones.
Ronna and quetta were arrived at after years of discussion and elimination of alternatives. It is perhaps odd that the new term should be so close to "rona," something we would prefer not to be reminded of, but we may be comforted by the fact that we are unlikely to need the term for years to come and hopefully the pandemic will be a distant memory by then (and, let us hope, not because it was eclipsed by a worse one).