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The yotta is not enough

Posted by Sarah Laskow  October 31, 2012 10:41 AM

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A yottabyte is mind-boggling amount of data. A byte is eight 1s and 0s. A yottabyte is 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 bytes. It's the amount of data that the National Security Agency thinks it will need to store the information it's gathering and processing in the name of intelligence. This guy estimates a yottabyte could store 9 billion years of Blu-ray-quality movies. Yotta is as far as the International System of Units - the metric system - goes. Soon enough, though, we're going to create so much data that we'll need a new way to describe it—a prefix for numbers with a magnitude of 10^27.

What comes next?

Maybe a brontobyte.

That's what the tech website GigaOm gleaned from a presentation by Intel's Shantanu Gupta. He used "brontobyte" to talk about how much data we'll be dealing with once we start connecting all the inanimate objects we deal with - appliances, cars, crops, buildings - to the internet and collecting information about their behavior. (This is the "internet of things," and it has to potential to blow both our understanding of how the world around us works and our server space.)

As a prefix, bronto- has some traction. GigaOm points to its presence on the website What's a byte? as a mark of legitimacy, but - perhaps more convincing - it’s in the Urban Dictionary. Unlike hella-, which a group of University of California students pushed for as the official 10^27 prefix a couple years back, bronto- has gravitas.

Plus, bronto- evokes the discredited brontosaurus, the “thunder lizard.” The dinosaur may have vanished from the scientific lexicon (it was really the apatosaurus, misidentified), but for anyone who grew up with the T. rex, stegosaurus, triceratops, and brontosaurus as the staple dinosaurs, "bronto" just feels big. Really big.

Photo: Katy Warner

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

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Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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