Prefixes in Physics
In physics, prefixes are used to represent very large or small values of physical quantities. They make it easier to work with values that are either too large or too small to be expressed in the standard unit of measurement. Prefixes are commonly used in scientific notation and are an essential part of physics.
In this article, I will explain what are prefixes in physics and mention all the prefixes available in physics.
What is a Prefixes in Physics?
Definition of prefixes in physics: Prefixes are a group of letters or symbols that are added to the beginning of a unit of measurement to represent a multiple or fraction of the standard unit. For example, kilo- means 1000, and milli- means 1/1000. Prefixes are based on powers of 10, making it easier to work with very large or small numbers.
A prefix in physics simply refers to the addition of a letter or symbol to an s.i unit or physical quantity in order to shorten its figures for better understanding.
Additionally, a prefix is always added before the unit and after the figures.
Therefore, for an answer to be considered a prefix, it must contain a large figure that might look inappropriate to fit in as the final answer or into your calculation (because it will look cumbersome).
For Example, 0.00000789 may look inappropriate in a calculation.
Instead, it’s converted into a standard form or to the power of 10.
For example, 7.89 x 10-6
It is important to know that the power of 10 may turn out to be negative or positive depending on what you are dealing with.
Therefore, after writing 7.89 x 10-6 we will need to still shorten the figures by adding a prefix.
Assuming it’s in Faraday, we can then write it as
7.89 x 10-6 F
Hence, to add a prefix, we now say that 10-6 = micro = μ
Thus, we can now replace 10-6 as micro = μ, by adding our prefix before our unit
Which implies, 7.89 μF = 7.89 micro faraday
You may also like to read:
Table of Prefixes: What are Prefixes in Physics
Here is a table to guide you on prefixes in physics
|Prefix||Standard form||Current symbol|
List of common prefixes
The most commonly used prefixes in physics are:
- Kilo- (k): 1000
- Mega- (M): 1,000,000
- Giga- (G): 1,000,000,000
- Milli- (m): 1/1000
- Micro- (μ): 1/1,000,000
- Nano- (n): 1/1,000,000,000
History of Prefixes
We have 20 sets of prefixes that are accepted and being used for measurement globally.
We started applying this form of the metric system after an agreement was reached in 1960.
In 2022, a British meteorologist (Richard J. C. Brown) came up with the idea of four more additional prefixes, and they are quetta, ronna, ronto, and quecto. These prefixes were added to the list of the existing prefixes we already have.
Also, ronna and quetta are mostly used in data science. Additional prefixes are ronto (10-27) and quecto (10-30).
You also need to understand that joining two prefixes at the same time is not approved in science.
For example, writing HECTOMEGAGRAM does not make sense and should be avoided.
In 1975, France was measuring units by applying Greek terms like myriad (10,000), double (2), and demi (½)
How to Write Prefixes in Physics
Here is how to write prefixes in physics:
- Write the figures you have obtained or given. For example, 20,000
- Find the symbol of the prefix. For example, c is for centi. Centi represents ten to the power of minus two (2).
- The symbol of the unit you are calculating. For example, a meter is a unit of length.
- Add the three together. The figure comes first, followed by the prefix, and then the unit. For example, 200cm is the same as 20,000(1/100)m.
Conversion Between Units
Prefixes are used to convert between different units of measurement. For example, one kilometer (km) is equal to 1000 meters (m), and one millimeter (mm) is equal to 1/1000 of a meter (m). To convert between units, simply multiply or divide the value by the appropriate prefix. It is important to use the correct prefix when making conversions to ensure that the value is expressed in the correct unit.
What is the Unit of Length For Angstrom, Light Year, and Micron
Here are some units of length with prefixes
This is one of the units of measurement for the length. The symbol of angstrom is Å, the capital letter A with a sign of degree on top of the letter. One angstrom (1Å) is equal to 0.0000000001 or 10-10m (which is in standard form). We can equally say that 1Å is equal to 0.1 nanometers (nm).
We use angstrom to measure variables like sizes of molecules, atoms, wavelengths of X-rays, wavelengths of gamma rays, or wavelengths of ultraviolet rays (UV – rays),. Additionally, the size of the helium atom is about 1Å (10-10m). The diameter of the nucleus of a helium atom is about 1 ferrometer (10-15m). Angstrom is no longer in use as before. The symbol Å came from Swedish letters.
Angstrom was adopted in 1907 and is not an S.I. unit of measurement. Nanometer and picometer are constantly used instead of angstrom.
We can now define a light year as the distance covered by a beam of light in 365.3 days. The distance covered by the beam of light in 365.3 days is about 9.5 trillion kilometers or 5.9 trillion miles. Light can travel as per as 11 million miles per minute, and the distance from the earth to the sun is close to eight light minutes.
It is obvious that we need to apply the knowledge of prefixes to be able to obtain an accurate distance covered by the beam of light. A light year is not an S.I. unit of measurement.
Research has shown that light travels 670,616,629 miles per hour or 1,079,252,849 kilometers per hour.
How to Find a Light Year
The number of hours in a year = 8,766 hrs
Distance traveled by a beam of light per hour = 670,616,629 miles or 1,079,252,849 kilometers
The distance traveled by one light year = The number of hours in a year x Distance traveled by a beam of light per hour
This is now equivalent to
Calculating light year In Miles
The distance traveled by one light year in miles = 670,616,629 miles/hr x 8,766 hrs = 5,878,625,369,814 miles
Therefore, One light-year = 5,878,625,369,814 miles which are approximately 5.9 trillion miles
It is obvious that we need the knowledge of a prefix to conveniently work with the above figures.
Calculating light year In Kilometers
The distance traveled by one light year in kilometers = 1,079,252,849 km/h x 8,766 hrs = 9,460,730,474,334 km
This shows that one lightyear in kilometers = 9,460,730,474,334 kilometers and can be approximated as 9.5 trillion kilometers
We can also see that it is easy to employ the knowledge of prefixes in physics in the above context to make our work easier
For example, the diameter of the milky way galaxy is about 2 x 105 light-years. Additionally, the distance between the nearest galaxy (Andromeda) to the earth is about 2.5 million light-years
Application of Micron in Prefixes
Micron is also known as 1 x 10–6. You can see that a micron has the same value as a micrometer. Scientists are currently using micrometers instead of microns in their work. The symbol for the micron is the same as the symbol for the micrometer which is μ (Miu).
The diameter of red blood cells is about 10 microns. Additionally, the diameter of human hair is about 10 to 102 microns
Standard Form of Prefixes in Physics
Here is more clarification about the standard form of prefixes:
Yotta = Y = 1024 = 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000
Zetta = Z = 1021 = 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000
Exa = Z = 1018 = 1,000,000,000,000,000,000
Peta = P = 1015 = 1,000,000,000,000,000
Tera = T = 1012 = 1,000,000,000,000
Giga = G = 109 = 1,000,000,000
Mega = M = 106 = 1,000,000
Kilo = K = 103 = 1,000
Hecto = h = 102 = 100
Deca = da = 101 = 10
Deci = d = 10-1 = 0.1
centi = c = 10-2 = 0.01
milli = m = 10-3 = 0.001
micro = μ = 10-6 = 0.000001
nano = n = 10-9 = 0.000000001
pico = p = 10-12 = 0.000000000001
Femto = f = 10-15 = 0.000000000000001
Atto = a = 10-18 = 0.000000000000000001
Zepto = z = 10-21 = 0.000000000000000000001
Yocto = y = 10-24 = 0.000000000000000000000001
These are the names of prefixes, their symbols, standard form, and in decimal places.
Note: Ten to the power of zero (100) is one according to the law of indices. Therefore, 100 = 1.
How to Write Prefixes in Physics
Here is how to apply prefixes in physics:
Yotta: we can write yotta as 0.8 YW = 0.8 Yottawatts
Zetta: we can write zetta as 4.2 Zs = 4.2 Zettaseconds
Exa: we can write Exa as 1.5Ekg = 1.5 Exakilogram
Peta: we can write Peta as 6.7Ps = 6.7 Petaseconds
Tera: we can write Tera as 0.3Tm = 0.3 Teramiles
Giga: we can write Giga as 10 Gb = 10 Gigabytes
Mega: we can write Mega as 30 MW = 30 Megawatts
Kilo: we can write Kilo as 20kg = 20 kilogram
Hecto: we can write Hecto as 55 hm = 55 hectometers (No longer in use by SI)
Deca: we can write Deca as 100 daL = 100 decaliters (No longer in use by SI)
Deci: we can write Deci as 90 dm = 90 decimeters (No longer in use by SI)
Centi: we can write Centi as 70 cm = 70 centimeters (No longer in use by SI)
Milli: we can write Milli as 25 mm = 25 millimeters
Micro: we can write Micro as 35 μF = 35 micro-faraday
Nano: we can write Nano as 28 nm = 28 nanometer
Pico: we can write Pico as 1.2 pA = 1.2 picoamperes
Femto: we can write Femo as 5.3 fs = 5.3 femtoseconds
Atto: we can write atto as 2.5 ag = 2.5 attogram
Zepto: we can write Zepto as 0.8 zm = 0.8 zeptometer
Yecto: we can write Yecto as 3 ys = 3 yoctoseconds
Applications in Physics
Prefixes are used in various areas of physics, such as astronomy, nuclear physics, and particle physics. For example, the distance between stars is measured in light-years, which is a unit of distance equal to the distance that light travels in one year. One light-year is approximately equal to 9.46 x 10^12 kilometers (km). Prefixes are also used to express the mass of subatomic particles, such as protons and electrons, which are measured in units of kilograms (kg) or electron volts (eV).
Examples of the Application of Prefixes in Physics
In addition to what I explained, here are some examples in a table to help you understand the applications of prefixes in physics:
|Prefix||Symbol||Standard form||Unit||Abbreviation||Standard form + Unit||Application|
|exa||E||1018||exameter||Em||1018 m||distance light travels in a century|
|peta||P||1015||petasecond||Ps||1015 s||30 million years|
|tera||T||1012||terawatt||TW||1012 W||powerful laser output|
|giga||G||109||gigahertz||GHz||109 Hz||a microwave frequency|
|mega||M||106||megacurie||MCi||106 Ci||high radioactivity|
|kilo||k||103||kilometer||km||103 m||about 6/10 mile|
|hector||h||102||hectoliter||hL||102 L||26 gallons|
|deka||da||101||dekagram||dag||101 g||teaspoon of butter|
|—||—||100 = 1||deciliter|
|deci||d||10−1||centimeter||dL||10−1 L||less than half a soda|
|centi||c||10−2||centimeter||cm||10−2 m||fingertip thickness|
|milli||m||10−3||millimeter||mm||10−3 m||flea at its shoulders|
|micro||µ||10−6||micrometer||µm||10−6 m||detail in microscope|
|nano||n||10−9||nanogram||ng||10−9 g||small speck of dust|
|pico||p||10−12||picofarad||pF||10−12 F||small capacitor in radio|
|femto||f||10−15||femtometer||fm||10−15 m||size of a proton|
|atto||a||10−18||attosecond||as||10−18 s||time light crosses an atom|
Also, here are some important points you may need to know
Distance to boundary of observable Universe is 1 x 1026 m
The distance to Andromeda galaxy (a) is 2.1 x 1022 m
We also have diameter of our Galaxy as 7.6 x 1020 m
Distance to nearest star (Proxima Centauri) is 4 x 1016 m
Earth–Sun distance is 1.5 x 1011 m
Radius of Earth is 6.4 x 1016 m
Wavelength of radio wave (AM band) is 3 x 102 m
Length of ship Queen Elizabeth is 3.1 x 102 m
Height of average human male is 1.8 m
Diameter of red blood cell (human) is 7.5 x 10-6 m
Wavelength of visible light is approximately 5.7 x 10-7 m
Diameter of smallest virus is 2 x 10-8 m
The diameter of atom is 1.0 x 10-10 m
Diameter of atomic nucleus (iron) is 8.0 x 10-15 m
We also have the diameter of proton as 2 x 1015 m
Multiples and Submultiples of the Foot
Mile = One (1) mile is equal to 5280 feet which is equivalent to 1609.38 meters
Yard (yd) = One (1) yard is the same thing as 3 feet which is equal to 0.9144 meters
Foot (ft) = One (1) feet is equal to 0.3048 meters
Inch (in.) = One (1) inch is equivalent to (1/12) feet which is also equal to 2.540 centimeters
mil = 1 mil = 0.001 inch
10 Examples of Prefixes in Physics
Sure, here are 10 examples of prefixes commonly used in physics:
- Kilo-: A prefix denoting a factor of a thousand, often used with units like kilograms (kg) or kilometers (km).
- Mega-: Signifying a factor of a million, it’s found in units like megawatts (MW) or megahertz (MHz).
- Giga-: Represents a billion-fold increase, used in contexts like gigabytes (GB) or gigajoules (GJ).
- Tera-: Denotes a trillion-fold increase, seen in terabytes (TB) or terawatts (TW).
- Micro-: Indicates one millionth of a unit, as in micrometers (μm) or microseconds (μs).
- Nano-: Refers to one billionth of a unit, used in nanometers (nm) or nanoseconds (ns).
- Pico-: Represents one trillionth of a unit, seen in picometers (pm) or picoseconds (ps).
- Femto-: Denotes one quadrillionth of a unit, often used in femtometers (fm) or femtoseconds (fs).
- Centi-: Signifies one hundredth of a unit, found in centimeters (cm) or centiseconds (cs).
- Milli-: Indicates one thousandth of a unit, as in millimeters (mm) or milliseconds (ms).
These prefixes are essential in physics and other sciences for expressing measurements and quantities across various scales.
Why do We use Prefixes in Physics?
Prefixes are used in physics to make dealing with large or small quantities more manageable and understandable. They help us express measurements in a concise and clear manner, especially when dealing with extreme values.
Imagine you have to describe the distance from one end of a city to another. Using just meters might result in a very large number, like millions of meters, which can be hard to grasp. By adding a prefix like “kilo-” (for kilometer), you can express the same distance as a more relatable number in kilometers.
Similarly, when dealing with tiny particles or extremely fast processes, using regular units like seconds or meters might lead to impractical numbers. Prefixes like “nano-” (for nanoseconds) or “micro-” (for micrometers) allow scientists to express these measurements in a way that’s easier to work with.
In essence, prefixes simplify the representation of quantities spanning different orders of magnitude. They help us communicate effectively and make sense of the vast range of measurements encountered in the diverse field of physics.
Importance of Prefixes in Physics
Prefixes play a very important role in physics for several reasons. They allow scientists to express measurements across a wide range of scales, from the incredibly small to the incredibly large, in a more concise and understandable manner.
- Clarity and Comprehension: Prefixes help avoid writing out long strings of zeros when dealing with large or small numbers. This makes measurements and calculations easier to read and understand.
- Efficiency: Using prefixes reduces the need for excessive conversions between units, streamlining calculations and minimizing errors.
- Precision: They enable scientists to represent quantities with appropriate levels of precision. For instance, using “millimeters” instead of “meters” for small lengths ensures accuracy.
- Communication: Prefixes facilitate effective communication among scientists globally, regardless of their native measurement systems, by providing a standardized way to express values.
- Versatility: Prefixes can be attached to various units, making them adaptable to different physical quantities, whether it’s time (seconds), distance (meters), or energy (joules).
- Scientific Notation: Prefixes are an integral part of scientific notation, a concise way to represent very large or small numbers, aiding in theoretical calculations and data analysis.
- Exploration and Discovery: In cutting-edge research, where measurements often span extreme scales, prefixes allow scientists to work with phenomena that would otherwise be difficult to quantify and understand.
To conclude, prefixes simplify measurement representation, enhance scientific communication, and empower physicists to explore and explain the universe across a vast spectrum of magnitudes.
How to Remember Prefixes in Physics
Remembering prefixes in physics can be made easier through simple techniques and associations:
- Mnemonic Devices: Create mnemonic phrases or sentences using the first letters of prefixes in order. For instance, “King Henry Doesn’t Usually Drink Chocolate Milk” represents kilo, hecto, deka, unit, deci, centi, milli.
- Visual Associations: Visualize everyday objects or scenarios that match each prefix. For example, associate “kilo-” with a kilogram of sugar or “milli-” with a millipede.
- Flashcards: Create flashcards with the prefix on one side and its meaning on the other. Regular review will reinforce your memory.
- Grouping: Group prefixes by their powers of ten. Kilo, mega, and giga increase by powers of a thousand, while milli, micro, and nano decrease.
- Practice Problems: Solve physics problems involving different units and prefixes. Practice reinforces your memory and helps you apply prefixes in context.
- Online Resources: Utilize online quizzes, games, and interactive tools designed to help remember prefixes in an engaging way.
- Teaching Others: Teach prefixes to someone else. Explaining concepts to others enhances your understanding and memory.
- Repetition and Exposure: Regularly encounter and use prefixes in your physics studies or everyday life. The more you encounter them, the more familiar they become.
- Storytelling: Create amusing or memorable stories that incorporate prefixes and their meanings.
- Analogies: Compare prefixes to familiar concepts. For example, liken “giga-” to “gigantic” or “micro-” to “microscopic” to remember their relative sizes.
Remember, consistent practice and finding methods that resonate with you personally are key to successfully recalling prefixes in physics.
Limitations of Prefixes
While prefixes are useful for representing very large or small values, they have limitations. They only work with units that are based on powers of 10 and cannot be used with non-metric units. Additionally, prefixes cannot be used to express values that are not a multiple or fraction of the standard unit. In these cases, the scientific notation can be used to represent very large or small values.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Question: What are prefixes in physics?
Answer: Prefixes are a group of letters or symbols that are added to the beginning of a unit of measurement to indicate a multiple or fraction of that unit. In physics, prefixes are commonly used to express large or small quantities of physical quantities, such as length, mass, or time.
Question: What are the most common SI prefixes used in physics?
Answer: The most common SI prefixes used in physics include kilo-, mega-, milli-, micro-, and nano-.
Question: How do I convert between different SI prefixes?
Answer: To convert between different SI prefixes, you can use conversion factors that relate to the two prefixes. For example, to convert from millimeters to meters, you would use the conversion factor 1 meter = 1000 millimeters.
Question: What is the difference between a prefix and a unit in physics?
Answer: A prefix is a group of letters or symbols that is added to the beginning of a unit to indicate a multiple or fraction of that unit, while a unit is a specific measure of a physical quantity, such as meters or seconds.
Question: How do I know which prefix to use in physics?
Answer: The prefix you use in physics depends on the magnitude of the quantity you are measuring. If the quantity is very large, you may need to use a prefix like mega- or giga-, while if the quantity is very small, you may need to use a prefix like micro- or nano-.
Question: Why do we use prefixes in physics?
Answer: We use prefixes in physics to make it easier to express very large or very small quantities of physical quantities, and to avoid writing out long strings of zeros. By using prefixes, we can communicate quantities more clearly and concisely.