Physics major has a name for a really big number


When Austin Sendek was growing up in Northern California, he was never allowed to use the regional slang term “hella.”

Now the 20-year-old physics major at UC Davis uses “hella” often — and he’s trying to get scientists from Boise to Beijing to do the same. Sendek, who was forced to use “hecka” as a child, has petitioned an international scientific body to make “hella” the name for the hitherto nameless, unimaginably huge, seldom-cited quantity of 10 to the 27th power — or 1 followed by 27 zeros.

‘Hella’ challenge: An article in the July 6 LATExtra section about the proposed scientific use of the slang term “hella” gave the wrong prefixes for 10 to the 21st power and 10 to the minus 21st. They are “zetta” and “zepto,” respectively. It also used the term “negative number” to describe a fractional number. —

It started as a joke, but Sendek’s Facebook petition: to the Consultative Committee on Units, a subdivision of the Bureau International des Poids et Mesures, has drawn more than 60,000 supporters. Its chances for formal adoption by the global weights-and-measures community are hella dim, but Google was so taken with Sendek’s modest proposal that it incorporated “hella” in its online calculator.

“As Google goes,” Sendek says hopefully, “so goes the world.”

“Hella,” a term many Southern Californians find as irritating as teary-eyed renditions of “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” is used mainly to make adjectives more intense, as in: “This lentil pizza is hella healthful!” It also can convey simple exuberance: “That party at Sunshine’s house? Hella!”

“Hella” probably derived from “helluva” and, for reasons unknown, morphed into “hella” in the Bay Area before taking wing in the 1990s. In 2001, Gwen Stefani and her band No Doubt — out of Orange County — took it national with their mega-hit “Hella Good.”

“A lot of people around the U.S. know it comes from Northern California, where there have been so many contributions to science at Davis, Berkeley, Stanford and Lawrence Livermore,” Sendek says of “hella.” “It would be a really good way to immortalize this part of the state.”

As for slang in scientific terminology, at least one linguist says right on.

“Anything that takes vernacular speech and treats it well — gives it its props — is fine with me,” said Carmen Fought, a professor at Pitzer College in Claremont. In a Facebook posting, a friend of Fought related the regional pride he felt on overhearing a Berkeley teenager use “hella”: “I nodded and smiled and thought to myself, ‘Keep the torch lit, my young friend.’ ”

For Sendek, the idea sprang from a physics class. “I asked my lab partner how many volts were in this electric field and she said, offhandedly, ‘Oh, man — there’s hella volts,’ ” he recalled. “It kind of clicked.”

At Google, software engineers, who are accustomed to planting “ Easter eggs” — hidden delights —in their programs, got wind of “hella” through one of Sendek’s friends and installed it in the service’s calculator. Now users can find out, with a little finagling, that our $13-trillion national debt, when expressed in hella-dollars, is a pleasingly tiny 1.3 times 10 to the minus 14th.

Of course, Google also planted pig Latin and Klingon in its translator function, so its embrace of “hella” may not reflect a rigorous intellectual assessment of the term.

For that, the world’s scientists turn to the Consultative Committee on Units, an advisory body of the International System of Units — which in French, the language of weights and measures, is more stylishly known as the Systeme Internationale, or SI.

Hella’s chances at the committee’s next meeting, in September, are remote. In an e-mail to colleagues, Ian Mills, the British chemist who serves as the CCU’s president, wrote that “it will be received with smiles — but I doubt that it will go further!”

The SI is not known for whimsy. It generally chooses prefixes suggested by Greek or Latin. In 1991, the last time prefixes were added to the world’s quantitative lexicon, the choices were “zepta” for 10 to the 21st and “zetto” for its tiny cousin in the realm of negative numbers, and “yotta” and “yocto” for 10 to the 24th and 10 to the minus 24th. (Above 1,000, prefixes are selected at every third power: “mega” for 10 to the sixth, “giga” for 10 to the ninth, etc.)

“The biggest question is whether the scientific community needs a prefix for 10 to the 27th,” said Ben Stein, a spokesman for the National Institute of Standards and Technology. “Zepta” and “yotta” haven’t exactly caught fire, he said, and the science is delving ever deeper into the unimaginably small — a realm Sendek’s proposal does not address.

Sendek, who skis for UC Davis when he’s not pounding the drum for large quantities, insists that the term would simplify scientific descriptions. The theoretical diameter of the universe, he points out, is 1.4 hellameters.

Still, he acknowledges that getting an official blessing for a term that means a million billion trillion is a long shot, despite headlines around the U.S. and a surge of pro-hella sentiment on his home turf.

“There’s not a huge chance of it happening,” he says, “but maybe if they’re having a great day.”