Not everybody realizes that the primary mission of NCSE is to defend the teaching of evolution and climate science. That’s understandable, of course. “National Center for Science Education” certainly suggests a broad remit for the organization. I’m told that the name was chosen back in the early 1980s because the founders, including the late Stanley Weinberg, envisioned that after creationism was defeated for once and for all, the organization would then broaden its scope. It didn’t quite work out that way, of course. But when NCSE added defending climate science to its portfolio in 2012, it was nice not to have to rename the organization, purchase a new sign for the building, design new letterhead and business cards, and so on.
Still, every so often a piece of mail crosses my desk from someone with a concern about science education generally, which I’ll answer, even if it’s not about evolution or climate science, to the best of my ability. Usually my answer isn’t tremendously amusing. But there are exceptions. Recently, for example, I received a letter from a gentleman in Australia, wanting NCSE’s help in publicizing a slogan to familiarize students with the metric prefix for 1024: “yotta.” His suggestion was “There’s a lotta metres in a yottametre”—or, in the United States, “There’s a lotta meters in a yottameter.” There are indeed a lot of meters in a yottameter: a trillion trillion meters, to be exact. That’s about 105.7 million light years. (By the way, I’m using the short scale trillion: 1012.)
My correspondent suggested that the term “is likely to become increasingly commonplace in future years due to advances in astronomical discoveries,” which I suppose may be the case. And although he was too modest to say so, his slogan is catchy—although perhaps not ideally specific: after all, there are a lot of meters in a zettameter—a billion trillion meters, to be exact—too. (Whence these unfamiliar prefixes? The Conférence Générale des Poids et Mesures explains that “zetta-” and “yotta-” are derived from “septo” and “octo,” suggesting, respectively, the seventh and the eighth power of 103. Similarly for the prefixes “zepto-” and “yocto-” for 10-21 and 10-24, which, contrary to popular rumor, are not named after the obscurer Marx Brothers.)
Alas, I concluded that it would be impossible for NCSE to aid the cause of the yottameter, simply as a matter of local pride. NCSE is located, after all, in the San Francisco Bay Area of northern California, where “hell of a” and “hell of a lot” are routinely elided to “hella.” (Farther south in California, the euphemistic “hecka” seems to prevail.) Having been so elided, “hella” then plays a role as a general intensifier, even in contexts where “hell of a” or “hell of a lot” couldn’t grammatically occur: you can eat a hella pizza or eat a hella tasty pizza, supposing that you are blessed with a hella good pizzeria in your neighborhood, but you can also eat a pizza hella quick or even hella eat a pizza (i.e., eat it ravenously). Thus t-shirts emblazoned with “I hella ♥ Oakland.”
So popular in NCSE’s neck of the woods is “hella” that in 2010, Austin Sendek, a student at the University of California, Davis, inaugurated a petition to establish “hella-” as the official International System of Units prefix for 1027. A hellameter is 105.7 billion light years, or about 110% of the diameter of the observable universe. The mass of the earth is about 6 hellagrams; the power of the sun is about 0.4 hellawatts; the volume of Jupiter is about 1.4 hellaliters: obviously “hella-” would be a useful prefix, astronomically! While the Consultative Committee for Units of the International Bureau of Weights and Measures is unaccountably dragging its heels on officially approving its use, Google’s calculator and Wolfram Alpha both support “hella-”—try them and see.
“Clearly there’s a danger that popularizing ‘yotta-’ would detract from the viability of ‘hella-,’” I reluctantly told my Australian correspondent. Loyal to NCSE’s surroundings in northern California, “we must decline to help to popularize a rival prefix, no matter how clever the slogan.” Removing my tongue from my cheek, I added, “There’s also the fact that NCSE’s main concern is defending the teaching of evolution and climate change, so we don’t have frequent occasion to discuss yotta- or hella- anything.” But, although I ordinarily disapprove of elegant variation in complimentary closings, preferring to use “Sincerely” more or less consistently, I departed from my practice to sign myself, “With hella (or 103 yotta) best wishes.”