Yreka High School graduate Austin Sendek has an idea that’s getting him noticed. Since March he has been featured in news stories as far away as New Zealand, China and England. His most recent interview was with the LA Times.

When asked if all the media attention fills some childhood dream, Austin laughs, “I’m not ‘Siskiyou Sensation’ yet, so it hasn’t fulfilled that dream.”

Austin’s recent claim to modest worldwide fame is his proposal to add a new prefix to the International System of Units (SI). In January, during his second year as a physics major at UC Davis, Austin came up with the idea that “Hella” would be a great prefix for 10 to the 27th power, a very large number that is currently un-named.

“Hella” is a slang word that, according to Urbandictionary.com, “is commonly used in place of ‘really’ or ‘very’ when describing something.”

The word is said to have originated in San Francisco and, based on the people from Los Angeles he’s met at college, Austin agrees.

And so it began

Austin said a Facebook group he created – “The Official Petition to Establish ‘Hella-’ as the SI Prefix for 10^27” – started as an inside joke between he and his friends. “They might mention it on their Facebook page and then their friends would see it and then their friends,” he said.

By March the momentum picked up. “It moves forward because it’s funny,” said Austin.

The Sacramento Bee ran an article, followed by TV spots on FOX40, CBS13, and NEWS10. According to Austin’s blog, the story was picked up by Time, CNN, the New York Times and LA Times. Newspapers in England, China, Germany, Jakarta, and one he believes is Finnish, also ran the story in March. Radio stations in Canada and Australia called him for interviews.

Of the foreign newspaper articles Austin said, “I don’t know if they get the joke.”  

The Sacramento Bee reported on March 2, “His petition has nearly 19,000 fans on Facebook, and seems to be growing by about 1,000 per day.” At the time of this printing the Facebook group has nearly 63,000 fans.

Austin said he feels “a little bit” famous. His Jackson Street sixth grade teachers showed CBS13’s segment on Austin to their classes.  When he visited the school, he was recognized and signed a lot of autographs. On occasion he has introduced himself and the response was, “Oh, Austin Sendek, the Hella guy?”  

Austin said there’s no formal way to petition SI to make “Hella” official. He guesses the reason for that is “because I think no one’s really been nerdy enough to try to add a new unit prefix.”

Austin received an email from Dr. Ian Mills, a chemistry professor and chairman of the Consultative Committee for Units, stating “Any recommendations for changes or extensions to the SI should be simple and easy to comprehend, and should satisfy a recognised need.”

“It has to be useable,” says Austin, reasoning that “If there’s a need to have 10^24 (yotta) then pretty soon there’s going to be a need to have 10^27.

Mills said in his email that he believes the most recent extensions were added in 1992. Mills concluded his email saying he liked the humorous touch of Austin’s suggestion and he would “mention this exchange at our next CCU meeting, and I am sure it will be received with smiles – but I doubt that it will go further!”

Austin still plans on writing SI a letter of explanation and sending them a copy of the Facebook petition for their September meeting.  “Unless I can come up with $1,000 cash so I can fly over there and present it myself at the meeting.”

Austin has a humorous perspective on being overlooked for “Siskiyou Sensation,” a Siskiyou Daily News sports feature that typically highlights standout athletes. The joke is that Austin is envious of his many athletic friends who were recognized as “Siskiyou Sensation.” He played a year of football, two years on the ski team, two years on the snowboard team and one year on the tennis team, but admits he was “never really serious about sports.” Austin thinks he might be more eligible for something like “Siskiyou Middle of the Pack.”

Academically Austin was a standout. He graduated in 2008 with a 4.33 GPA, was one of three valedictorians, and named “Most Likely to Succeed” in the school yearbook.

“Austin is a deep and dynamic thinker who grew more academically than most students, because of his openness to new ideas,” said Steve Pyles, Austin’s YHS Government and Economics teacher.

He became interested in physics during high school. “The real science classes that we had were basically chemistry and physics, and calculus. And for all three of those, I had really awesome teachers, so that kind of turned me on to it.”

Austin has been exploring jobs dealing with energy policy because “you get to work on the science as well as the more political side of it.” He said he has always liked government, politics and law too.

When asked where he sees himself in 10 years, Austin says, “Hella rich, I hope.”

There’s more at Austin’s blog:?www.makehellaofficial.blogspot.com and his Facebook group: The Official Petition to Establish “Hella-” as the SI Prefix for 10^27.