Hellabytes? A Campaign to Turn Slang into Science

  • Share
  • Read Later

To the rest of the U.S., hella — Northern California cant for very — is a weird and uniquely annoying piece of slang. But to Austin Sendek, a physics student at the University of California, the word is a mark of regional pride, one that he thinks deserves immortalization in the annals of science.

Sendek is the brains behind a burgeoning Internet effort to make hella- an officially recognized scientific-unit prefix, representing the magnitude of 1.0x1027, expressed by the number 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000. What started as a joke between a few of Sendek's friends has become hella popular, growing into the loftily named Facebook group "The Official Petition to Establish 'Hella-' as the SI Prefix for 10^27," comprising nearly 50,000 like-minded nerds and fans of NoCal parlance.

The effort stems from the fact that many numbers — particularly large ones — don't have official names. Small ones are familiar — mega- is the officially recognized prefix for 1.0x106, or 1 million. Giga- is the prefix for 1.0x109, or 1 billion. But past 1.0x1024, or yotta-, there are no official names. (With one notable exception: 1.0x10100 was set aside as googol- in 1938 — long before being respelled by Larry Page and Sergey Brin 60 years later for Google, their upstart search engine.)

Sendek says the idea for hella- came to him while working in a physics lab with a partner in February. "We were looking at this electric field, and she said there were hella volts in this field," Sendek says. "We started thinking that it'd be pretty funny if a hellavolt was a real thing, or a hellameter or hellagram." Sendek started the Facebook group for his inside joke but says he was surprised to see it explode after a reporter from the Sacramento Bee discovered the effort. Since then, Sendek has advocated for his cause on radio shows from Canada to Australia, with articles about his effort appearing on the websites for ABC News, Fox News and the Telegraph.

But if history has taught us anything (Ron Paul for President! Snakes on a Plane!), it's that even the most dedicated of Internet campaigns have a tough time achieving much in the real world. And despite his efforts, Sendek says he doubts hella- will become an officially recognized prefix anytime soon. After the story in the Bee, Sendek says he received an e-mail from the chairman of the Consultative Committee of Units at the International Bureau of Weights and Measures, the group tasked with creating worldwide standards for scientific prefixes. "He said he appreciated the humor but didn't think it would go much further," Sendek says.

Part of the reason is that there's not much reason for numbers that big to have names, since they're seldom used. But the scientist in Sendek is hopeful that the prefix's day might come. "We're always learning more about the universe, stars, black holes, planets and galaxies," Sendek says. "That's when those big numbers start to come up."

Until there's a scientific breakthrough or a change of heart from the powers that be, Sendek says he hopes to keep the effort moving. He plans on launching a website at hellapetition.com soon, and like any good Internet entrepreneur, he's trying to cash in on his viral success by selling T-shirts. "I've realized there's a pretty big nerd base out there," Sendek says. If nothing else, Sendek's quirky effort will be a hella good résumé line when he graduates from college in 2013.