Thursday, March 4, 2010

In the Sacramento Bee

Tuesday, March 2, Carlos Alcala broke the story on the "hella" movement by publishing the following piece:

UC Davis student pushes new math unit: 'Hella'

Austin Sendek, a UC Davis physics student, has started a petition to establish a new, scientifically accepted prefix, "hella," to be used in front of units of weight, distance or computer storage, much as "milli," "kilo," "mega" and "giga" are now used.

His petition already has hella signatures.

"Hella" is a Northern California term that is a slangy synonym for "really" or "a lot of."

Under Sendek's proposal, the International System of Units would adopt "hella" to follow "zetta," which indicates 1021, and "yotta," 1024.

"Hella" would indicate 1027, or 1 followed by 27 zeros.

His petition has nearly 19,000 fans on Facebook, and seems to be growing by about 1,000 per day.

The idea was generated in class when he and his fellow students were discussing electricity.

"I started joking about hellavolts," said Sendek, who remembers using "hella" as a kid in Yreka.

Then, still as a joke, he started his petition on Facebook and was surprised to see how it took off.

The idea gets plenty of praise from Northern Californians and some criticism from Southern Californians, who often disdain the expression.

"It is a diagnostic for regional dialect," said linguist Rachelle Waksler, explaining how the word's use implies the speaker is from Northern California.

Waksler is a professor at San Francisco State University who has studied "hella" and written a paper on it, as used in slang.

To get grammatically technical: " 'Hella' is an intensifier, which is a kind of adverb that is used to place targets on a continuum for some salient property," Waksler said.

But does "hella" have a snowball's chance of being applied to science?

Scientific prefixes like "deca," "kilo" and "nano" are established by the International Bureau of Weights and Measures, based in France and known by the French acronym BPIM.

A variety of factors are used in considering a new prefix, said Ben Stein, spokesman for theNational Institute of Standards and Technology in Maryland.

Among them: Is the standard needed? Is it widely applicable? Does it follow previously established patterns?

For the first question, it would require that "hella" be useful for scientific descriptions.

Sendek has already worked out some examples to suggest it would.

"The power of the sun," he said, "is .3 hellawatts."

The distance across the observable universe, he added, is 1.4 hellameters.

It may not follow existing patterns, though.

The last prefixes approved, zetta and yotta, are based on words for "seven" and "eight." They apply to 10 to the 21st power (21=7x3) and 10 to the 24th power (24=8x3).

By that logic, the next prefix would relate to a word for "nine," not to California slang.

After Sendek made his suggestion, UC Davis linguistics professor Patrick Farrell put the question on a list of possible topics for his students to analyze in term papers.

"It's something that's most common in the speech of Northern California," Farrell said.

Stein of the NIST admitted having a "warm feeling" for the petition, having once been a physics undergraduate.

A bit of whimsy, he said, is common in physics.

This can be seen in the naming of elementary particles and their properties, such as quarks, which come in "flavors" that include "up," "down" and "strange."

Stein also said Sendek may have stumbled on a field of increasing importance in science – that of establishing definitions for scientific concepts.

Some scientists are working on new and more precise definitions of things – like the kilogram – that may seem obvious to the lay person.

Stein forwarded Sendek's idea to I.M. Mills, a professor in Reading, England, who is working on the kilogram issue.

Mills also heads the Consultative Committee for Units, CCU, the international BPIM committee that would be the first stop for the proposal if it were to be adopted for the International System of Units.

Mills responded – in an e-mail to Sendek and The Bee – that the CCU has talked about extending the range of prefixes in the past, but felt "it would not be sensible to recommend extensions to the prefixes that would be rarely used."

Mills was not entirely negative, though.

"I like the humorous touch of your suggestion of the prefix "hella" for 10^27!" Mills wrote. "I will mention this exchange at our next CCU meeting, and I'm sure it will be received with smiles – but I doubt that it will go further!"

Hella too bad.

1 comment:

  1. Virtues of "hella" as an SI Prefix:
    1. It has some of the same whimsical character as "yotta", which is an adaptation of Greek "octo" (eight) that seems hella not Greek.
    2. It gets the right idea across. .3 hellawatts is like so many watts that it boggles, unlike something like .3 lotsawatts.

    1. "Hella" is at least a little bit taboo, since kids automatically switch to "hecka" in front of teachers and ministers.
    2. All other SI prefixes are adaptations of Greek words.

    The power of the sun is .3 hecawatts. Looks Greek and could even be said to be an adaptation of "hecaton", which means "hundred" literally but "hecka" figuratively.