As the scale of science expands, so does the language of prefixes

From The Economist

Nowadays every factory seems to be a “gigafactory”. Elon Musk, the boss of Tesla, recently cut the ribbon on a fourth facility by that name, in Berlin. Tesla’s Shanghai Gigafactory has been in the news for a covid-related halt in production. The Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (tsmc), one of the world’s most important chipmakers, has begun touting its “gigafabs”. Nissan has announced a gigafactory in Sunderland, in the north-east of England.

Giga- is a prefix meaning “a billion” of something. The Oxford English Dictionary drily describes it as an “arbitrary derivative” of the Greek gigas, “giant”. (The ancient Greeks apparently had no need for a specific word for “billions”.) But the various gigafactories don’t always produce billions of anything: each month the tsmc gigafab can start about 100,000 silicon wafers used for making microchips, making it more of a hectokilofactory. (Hekaton and khilioi really are Greek for 100 and 1,000.) Tesla, at least, can claim that its original Gigafactory in Nevada supplies billions of watt-hours of battery-cell output per year.

As science has expanded to the huge and the tiny, the need for new metric-system prefixes has grown accordingly. These have made their way into common parlance mostly through computing. In the 1980s a good computer might have had 256 kilobytes of memory. The first hard drives with a million bytes’ worth of storage introduced the world to the megabyte, a jaw-dropping notion at the time. (Megas, too, was generic in Greek, meaning “great”. A megalomaniac has delusions of greatness, not millionaire status.) But at least many people had heard of the mega- prefix before. When the billion-byte mark was crossed, many began encountering “giga-” for the first time, strange new linguistic territory opened up by Moore’s Law.

It can be only a matter of time before giga- feels ho-hum; after all, a memory card with 128 gigabytes of storage is today the size of a thumbnail and costs around $20. Affordable hard drives now have terabyte—that is, trillion-byte—storage. Having run out of terms for “big”, the borrowers from Greek got creative: teras means “monster”. As billions become workaday, tera- will become the new giga-.

For a while, anyway. Whether or not computing power continues to grow at the rate it has in the past—a matter of some debate—it is inevitable that peta- and exa- will make their debut in the popular consciousness. Already selected by the International Committee for Weights and Measures (icwm), peta- and exa- come from Greek penta (five) and hexa (six), representing 1,0005 and 1,0006. After that, the icwm’s prefix-mongers have decided to go for Latin rather than Greek. They considered septa- and octo- for 1,0007 and 1,0008. But the proposed s- shortening of septa- could have been confused with an abbreviation for a second, and the o- for a zero. So septa- and octo- were deformed to zetta- (1,0007) and yotta- (1,0008).

. . . .

Small is cool too. The fractional equivalent of giga- is nano-, the prefix denoting a billionth. Nanotechnology is big, so to speak: nanoparticles making up nanobeads are hot topics in science and technology. The hip feel conveyed by the prefix was borrowed by Apple, which named its tiny music player the Nano. (Again, the etymology is classical: nanos is the Greek word for “dwarf”.) If nano-, too, eventually becomes humdrum, look out for pico- (a trillionth, from Spanish pico for “a little bit”), femto- and atto-, from the Danish for 15 and 18, referring to 1015 and 1018.

Link to the rest at The Economist (PG doesn’t know if you’ll hit a paywall or not. He didn’t when he clicked, but he may be a special snowflake in the eyes of the editors of The Economist.)

7 thoughts on “As the scale of science expands, so does the language of prefixes”

  1. Showing my age: I remember when a state-of-the-art, 4 gig hard drive was the size of a washing machine.

    My first computer held an awe-inspiring 64 k of active memory. And one floppy disc drive. I loved that thing.

  2. In consumer electronics we are well into tbe age of Tera-, where 1Terabyte consoles are the baseline (and half tbat is entry level) and in enterprise computing deep into the age of Peta-, both Petabytes and Petaflops inching into the age of exa.

    In factories the movement to Giga factories is in large part due to automation and new processes, where large objects are built as a single object via gigapresses (Tesla) and metal 3D printing (SpaceX, GE, Relativity Space, and many others). Large plants are needed to produce in BIG volumes: Tesla just opened a *fifth* gigafactory in Austin Texas yesterday. A week after Berlin.
    They *need* those facilities to meet demand. They were producing almost a million cars a year and, despute parts shortages, looking to nearly double that to 1.6-1.8M this year depending on their supply chain and the China shutdown in Shanghai.

    Try this flythrough video to appreciate what makes Tesla Giga factories GIGA…

    …and note that Gigaberlin was downscaled in response to local bureaucratic foot dragging. It was originally meant to generate more jobs and produce more cars.

    If you look carefully, you’ll see the giga presses at work, stamping out entire car frames in one pice and bodies in 2-3.

    The flip side in factories is the 3D printing driven hyperlocal microfactories of outfits like ARRIVAL looking to build where they sell. What makes these micro or nano is their relatively low volume (thousands to tens of thousand a year per facility), typically for niche and custom products, that lets them set up shop in large-ish warehouses just about anywhere, minimizing transport costs for the supp!y chain and product delivery.

    Both giga and micro/nano manufacturing are about new tech allowing specialization and optimization to market needs. Plus PR Hype to fire up media coverage and keep stockholders happy with capital expenditures. 🙂

  3. The term GigaFactory was coined by Tesla when they built their battery plant in Nevada, which was targeted to build 1 GWh of battery capacity a year.

    • It also cost $5B to build so giga fits there, too.

      Tesla coined Gigafactory mostly out of spite, to highlight the sheer size of the factory they had originally meant to build in california, close to their car factory, until regulations and taxes made Nevada more practical, even with the added transportaion cost.
      (It also helped that Nevada offered $400M in incentives, about 8%, to secure those 7700 jobs and associated taxes.)

      • TSMC’s GigaFabs also cost billions of dollars to build and outfit with equipment, close to $10B back in 2010.

        Also, they run approximately 250,000 wafer starts per month in the Taiwan facilities with each wafer being able to provide roughly 70,000 square millimeters of useful real estate. That amounts to over a billion square millimeters per month.

        The writer of this article clearly knows nothing about high tech manufacturing.

        • Well, that is not totally unexpected from a european magazine. Their view of high tech is “something americans do to steal our money”. Outside of weapons their tech base runs at least a decade behind the US and east Asia.

          For an allegedly pacifist region, their biggest investments are all military or dual use, very little consumer tech focus. The most advanced tech players (outside the Baltics) is ASML and they are a relatively small industrial product operation. They are also *the* chokepoint on advanced chip foundries.

          (Earlier this decade, Daimler invested in Tesla for access to their EV battery tech. A few years later the let Musk buy them out for $50m. As of now, Tesla can buy Daimler out of petty cash. Along those lines, VW’s president said Tesla wasca niche that would never make a profit. Then, when Tesla started talking about a German factory, he started looking into EVs. Last year he openly admitted they were five years behind Tesla’s current battery tech. Tesla is now ramping up a new lighter and cheaper battery. Instead of EVs, euro companies and BMW in particular have been pushing hydrogen combustion cars–because they know combustion– despite a total lack of support infrastructure anywhere on Earth. They sound a lot like the BPHs.)

          So, no, it’s not surprising they’d have little interest in what other regions manufacture or how, as long as they can buy it from China.

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