Tuesday, May 31, 2011

First goes Google, now goes WolframAlpha

In May 2010, Google officially recognized the "hella" prefix by including it in the Google calculator. Now, a year later, we've won another important battle in the war to make hella official: WolframAlpha. That's right, every science and engineering student's favorite website has finally jumped onboard.

When "1 hellameter" is entered into WolframAlpha's search bar, the following page comes up:

Check it out for yourself; you can search for "30 hellavolts", "1000 hellaseconds", or whatever you want. It even gives you some corresponding quantities for comparison!

If you're familiar with WolframAlpha.com, it's probably because you've used their amazing integration calculator to evaluate integrals that you're too lazy to work out for yourself (or because your assignment is due in three minutes). However, WolframAlpha also includes a wealth of other information, such as information on the elements, special relativity, and, of course, units. It's quickly becoming a go-to source for students and researchers alike, and consistently draws praise from, of all people, my quantum mechanics professor.

And it's precisely because WolframAlpha is so reputable that this victory is a significant one; most people are used to Google's flippant, whimsical humor, but WolframAlpha generally tries to stay as straight and... erm... "sciencey" as possible. Perhaps this means that feelings towards the "hella-" prefix are shifting from playful to earnest. But it's hard to say. It certainly seems that this should be the natural progression as the idea becomes more familiar and (somehow) starts to seem less ridiculous. And as my friend Dr. David Bacon of the University of Washington once reminded me, standards don't become standards just because some committee designates them as such -- they become standards because people simply use them. Just as the non-standard English system of units is the "standard" in the US, so the non-standard "hella-" prefix could also become standard science vernacular simply through widespread usage and exposure. SI? We don't need no stinking SI!

Is this signaling the beginning of international acceptance of the "hella-" prefix? As hard as it is to infer deeper meaning from WolframAlpha's inclusion of "hella-" in their unit definiton pages, one thing is clear: this is hella awesome. I mean, it's WolframAlpha!

Onward and upward!