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'Ronnabyte' and 'Quettabyte' are the new terms to describe large amounts of data

Measurement officials have expanded the system of prefixes used to describe very large and small numbers, adding "ronna" and "quetta," among others, to the ranks of "giga" and "tera."

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Transcript:

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The world is full of data - on your phone, your computer, in the cloud. We measure it with words like gigabyte or terabyte.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

But data is growing exponentially, and people had started using some less-than-scientific-terms to describe it, such as hellabyte to describe the number one with 27 zeroes after it.

RICHARD BROWN: Hellabyte comes from hell of a big number.

SHAPIRO: Richard Brown of the U.K.'s National Physical Laboratory says it was a different made-up term alluding to brontosauruses that really set him off.

BROWN: Brontobyte - well, I'd seen that in a number of locations. But specifically, I heard about it on a BBC radio program. And that was really the start of the work for me - having heard this unofficial name being used, which is not acceptable as an official name because the starting letters, B and H for hellabyte, are already in use.

KELLY: You see, Brown is a metrologist. This is one of these people who makes sure we have ways to measure the ridiculously large and small. And to fit within established conventions, the new prefix had to start with either R or Q.

SHAPIRO: So over the last five years, Brown coined some new contenders and tossed out another.

BROWN: Which is very, very close to a swear word in Portuguese.

SHAPIRO: Eventually, he settled on two new prefixes for large quantities - ronna and quetta.

BROWN: Ronna is 10 to the power 27. So that's a one with 27 zeros after it. Quetta is 10 to the power 30. So that's a one with 30 zeros after it.

SHAPIRO: For context, the mass of the earth is about six ronnagrams.

KELLY: On Friday, representatives from around the world convened in Paris for the General Conference on Weights and Measures. They voted to adopt the new prefixes, along with two more for teeny, tiny quantities - ronto and quecto. That's 10 to the power minus 27 and 30, respectively.

SHAPIRO: Now, Brown says quetta is not related in any way to the city in Pakistan, but there are a few people named Ronna. And Ronna Pratt, an events consultant in Pittsburgh, had a message for Brown.

RONNA PRATT: Thanks for memorializing my name like that. It's kind of an unusual name. I don't even get those little keychains at the tourist traps, you know, that have your names on them. There's never a Ronna.

KELLY: Pratt doesn't think she'll use ronnabytes in her line of work, but she may find other applications. When she first heard the news, she was on the phone with a friend.

PRATT: She cracked the joke immediately that, from now on, our hangovers will have to be measured in ronnabytes and how many of them we have today.

SHAPIRO: Given the magnitude of a ronnabyte, it sounds like a head-splitting diagnosis either way.

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