A Mole of Bytes (updated, seven years later…) (aka How to record the Universe)

(original published on May 22, 2006 – [updates in square brackets])

Is computing rapidly turning itself into a hi-tech version of Howard Stern’s famous “Who Wants to be a Turkish Billionaire?” ?

My son asked me [seven years ago, so he was four] to explain what is a “Gigabyte”. I tried to describe the meaning of a little bit more than a billion tiny little things hidden in a PC. But then I stopped quickly: how was I going to clarify the meaning of having 40 of those “gigabytes” in my laptop’s hard drive alone [500 since 2011]? And 200 of them in my desktop computer [1,024 since 2013 – but I also have a 4TB external HDD]. And a thousand of them (a terabyte) in the latest high-spec PC [you can buy a 8TB internal HDD in 2013].

And at current growth rates, hard-disk capacity is increasing 10-fold every 5 years [note that the actual figures have turned up to be very near that rate]. It is perfectly clear then that by the time he’s 19 in 2021, we will have to cope with the impossibility of comprehending what we’ve got, and silly-sounding terms like petabytes (well, it sounds like 8-bit flatulence in Italian anyway).

From there onwards it’s going to be exabytes in 2035, zettabytes in 2050 and I’ll be turning 100 literally in yoda-yoda-land (yottabytes, some million billion billion bytes that will grace our computers in the middle of the 2060)

There is however no need for all this aggravation…let’s learn from Chemistry and dear old Avogadro Constant. So here’s my proposal:

1. Dig the Giga, Tera, Peta, Etcetc-bytes asap

2. Define a Mole of Bytes as 6.023×10ˆ23 of them

3. Resize the capacities now. Say, a 100 Gigabyte disk becomes a mere 166 femtoMole. To sport even 100 Terabytes of storage area, will only mean less than 200 picoMoles of Bytes.

This will surely give some renewed perspective to the whole business of visualizing trends in computing, and show that there is a long long way ahead before we can declare ourselves satisfied with our computational powers.

[for those with a mathematical disposition: 1 mole of bytes would contain more than 11.2 trillion blu-ray discs, corresponding (at 9h/disc) to 11.5 billion years of HDTV recording, the entire history of the universe. Alternatively, it would contain around 2 hours of HDTV recording from cameras spaced apart so that each of them would cover 10 square meters, or 110 square feet of the Earth’s surface, oceans included. If the capacity increase rate is sustained, the first disks with a mole of bytes will be shipped around the year 2067]