Sunday, March 14, 2010

Talk Like a Physicist: The Hella edition

Today is March 14th, Pi Day.  It's also Talk Like a Physicist Day, which is something the internets made up so they can geek out a bit.

I think I must talk like a physicist all the time.  My casual conversation is peppered with things like "within an order of magnitude" and "negligible".  I'm not sure this is a behavior I should encourage, since my non-physics friends probably have no clue what I'm saying.

But just as physics terms have affected my slang, could slang affect the language of physics?  Some people on the internets hope so!  Austin Sendek, from UC Davis, started a Facebook petition to make "hella" a new SI prefix.

I'm sure you're all familiar with at least a few of the SI prefixes.  A kilometer, for instance, is 103 meters.  A centimeter is 10-2, or 1/100th of a meter.  There are a bunch of other SI prefixes, listed below.
10-1: deci- (d)
10-2: centi- (c)
10-3: milli- (m)
10-6: micro- (μ)
10-9: nano- (n)
10-12: pico- (p)
10-15: femto- (f)
10-18: atto- (a)
10-21: zepto- (z)
10-24: yocto- (y)

101: deca- (da)
102: hecto- (h)
103: kilo- (k)
106: mega- (M)
109: giga- (G)
1012: tera- (T)
1015: peta- (P)
1018: exa- (E)
1021: zetta- (Z)
1024: yotta- (Y)
But to be honest, I had to look most of these up.  If you start talking about zeptoseconds or petagrams, even physicists will give you strange looks. For most practical purposes, we never go beyond nano- or giga-.  If you want to go further, you use scientific notation, or you find new units.  For instance, one lightyear is about 10 petameters, but guess which unit is used more often.

But don't let that stop you from memorizing all the prefixes!

The goal of the "hella" petition is to make hella- the prefix for 1027.  For instance, the earth is about 6 x 1027 grams, or about 6 hellagrams.  Isn't that hella cool?  It's also probably ultimately pointless, much like Pi Day and Talk Like a Physicist Day.  But don't tell the internets I said that.

For the benefit of non-California residents, I should explain that "hella" is slang meaning "very".  Example usage: "Physics is hella fun!"  The slang is primarily used in NorCal (north California).  As for people in SoCal, they mostly know "hella" as that annoying slang that NorCal people use.  They also mostly know NorCal folks as those people who use that annoying slang "hella".

I'm a SoCal person myself, but I don't mind "hella".  This is probably because I plan to betray SoCal and move to NorCal sometime in the future.  There really is no other explanation.

1 comment:

DeralterChemiker said...

Your tie to the Facebook petition about "hella" led me to the statement, "Mark Liberman calculated the storage requirements for all human speech ever spoken at 42 zettabytes, if digitized as 16 kHz 16-bit audio." This reminded me of something I read somewhere long ago which said that anyone can easily put together a sentence that is nine or more words long that has never been spoken before in the history of the earth. According to Wikipedia, "The Global Language Monitor announced that the English language had crossed the 1,000,000-word threshold on June 10, 2009." So, my question is, how many unique nine-word sentences can be spoken, sticking to English sentences that make sense? Calculating that sounds like hella job.