Mega- and nano-everything

By Marcus Wilson 22/02/2013 1

 While generally speaking I’m very pleased to hear physics words appear in everyday conversation, I would prefer for them to be used approximately correctly. ‘Exponentially‘ is a case in point – it gets used for something that keeps getting bigger, regardless of how exponential it really is. 

So, while ‘nanotechnology’ is a good word to hear (because that’s what it is, technology on the scale of nanometres), ‘megamilk’ or ‘mitre 10 mega’ is not. What is there that’s a million times more in megamilk than normal milk? Is mitre 10 mega a million times bigger than a mitre 10. I think not. 

With data storage abilities of gadgets growing exponentially (and I mean exponentially here) we are rapidly traversing the prefixes for large things: kilo (a thousand – remember when 64k RAM was a big deal?) mega (a million), giga (a billion, or ten to the power 9) and now tera (ten to the power 12) is beginning to be a household prefix. Next comes peta (10^15) and exa (10^18), zetta (now that’s a cool sounding one, 10^21) and yotta (10^24), though I admit to having looked up the last three. 

I wonder when we’ll see ‘zetta-‘ things go on sale, at zetta-stores?

Going the other way, we have milli (a thousandth), a micro (a millionth), a nano (a billionth) and then pico, femto, atto, and beyond.  I came across this article today about mobile phone networks. The idea of a microcell is old hat. They’re already in the realm of  femto cells – tiny little mobile cells at airports etc (a totally mangled definition of femto if you ask me) – and people are beginning to talk about attocells – e.g. every lightbulb in your house becomes a transmitter in a separate ‘cell’. 

Actually, the article is really interesting to read, highlighting some of the problems with exponentially (again!) demand for data bandwidth. I propose we go to zeptocells, where each limb on your body is a cell. 






One Response to “Mega- and nano-everything”

  • The “correct” use of words depends on the context and polysemes and homonyms are good examples of this.

    Exponential is a common term that is not confined to physics (or should this be mathematics?). So are hyperbole, tangent, and circular, to name a few; they have meanings outside of the formal scientific language. The friction (…) between language, semantics, and (mathematical) formalism is and has been a fascinating issue for yonks.

    The same is true of the prefix “mega”; take megalomaniac, for example. You know that it is derived from the Greek word for great or “micro”, which means small and not necessarily “one millionth”.

    I think the use of “nano” is hyped (exaggerated) because the SI prefixes go in steps of thousands (i.e. three orders of magnitude, which, BTW, is another common word that not necessarily and always means 10-fold) and it often refers to sizes or scales on the order of 10^−7.

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