'Hella' Proposed as Official Big Number

Soon the word "hella" may not be associated with California surfers as much as with scientists in lab coats. A physics student is petitioning to add "hella" to the International System of Units (SI) as the official designation of 10 to the 27th power, or a trillion trillions.

Austin Sendek, a University of California, Davis undergraduate, has gathered almost 40,000 fans on the Facebook page devoted to his "movement."

Many numbers have such prefixes, such as "centi" for 0.01 (or 10 to the minus 2nd power), or "micro" for 10 to the minus 6th power. On the larger side of things, "giga," for example, represents 10 to the 9th power, or 1 billion. But so far, the largest official designation is "yotta," for 10 to the 24th power.

"In our world of increasing physical awareness and experimental precision, this number is no longer a satisfactory 'upper bound' in scientific nomenclature," Sendek wrote in his earnest petition.

To become official, "hella" would have to jump through quite a few bureaucratic hoops. It would have to pass through the Consultative Committee for Units (CCU), one of 10 advisory committees of the International Committee for Weights and Measures (CIPM). If the CCU recommends it the CIPM, that board must then decide whether to advance the cause to the General Conference on Weights and Measures (CGPM), the official authority that can make changes to the SI system.

That international organization, based in France, includes members from 81 countries.

"I think that for a number of reasons it’s a long shot," said Ben Stein, a spokesperson for the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the U.S. organization that handles measurements. "The types of things they would consider are: is it needed; does it add or reduce confusion; are the names consistent with other names associated with the prefixes?"

Sendek argues that the name would honor the scientific contributions of Northern Californians, who have famously popularized the phrase "hella" to mean "a whole lot."

"We believe that the SI system can not only rectify their failing prefix system but also honor the scientific progress of Northern California by formally establishing 'hella-' as the prefix for 10^27," Sendek wrote.

And Stein conceded the name doesn't sound much crazier than some of the other prefixes in the system, such as "zetta," "zepto" and "yocto."

"I think it's actually great that a student has shown initiative," Stein told LiveScience. "He's helped raise awareness of units and measurements in science."

The petition can be viewed here.

Clara Moskowitz
Clara has a bachelor's degree in astronomy and physics from Wesleyan University, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. She has written for both Space.com and Live Science.