Order of magnitude

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Orders of magnitude are written in powers of 10. For example, the order of magnitude of 1500 is 3, since 1500 may be written as 1.5 × 103.

Differences in order of magnitude can be measured on the logarithmic scale in "decades" (i.e., factors of ten).[1] Examples of numbers of different magnitudes can be found at Orders of magnitude (numbers).

We say two numbers have the same order of magnitude of a number if the big one divided by the little one is less than 10. For example, 23 and 82 have the same order of magnitude, but 23 and 820 do not."[2]John C. Baez


Orders of magnitude are used to make approximate comparisons. If numbers differ by 1 order of magnitude, x is about ten times different in quantity than y. If values differ by 2 orders of magnitude, they differ by a factor of about 100. Two numbers of the same order of magnitude have roughly the same scale: the larger value is less than ten times the smaller value.

In words
(long scale)
In words
(short scale)
Prefix Symbol Decimal Power
of ten
Order of
quadrillionth septillionth yocto- y 0.000,000,000,000,000,000,000,001 10−24 −24
trilliardth sextillionth zepto- z 0.000,000,000,000,000,000,001 10−21 −21
trillionth quintillionth atto- a 0.000,000,000,000,000,001 10−18 −18
billiardth quadrillionth femto- f 0.000,000,000,000,001 10−15 −15
billionth trillionth pico- p 0.000,000,000,001 10−12 −12
milliardth billionth nano- n 0.000,000,001 10−9 −9
millionth millionth micro- µ 0.000,001 10−6 −6
thousandth thousandth milli- m 0.001 10−3 −3
hundredth hundredth centi- c 0.01 10−2 −2
tenth tenth deci- d 0.1 10−1 −1
one one 1 100 0
ten ten deca- da 10 101 1
hundred hundred hecto- h 100 102 2
thousand thousand kilo- k 1,000 103 3
million million mega- M 1,000,000 106 6
milliard billion giga- G 1,000,000,000 109 9
billion trillion tera- T 1,000,000,000,000 1012 12
billiard quadrillion peta- P 1,000,000,000,000,000 1015 15
trillion quintillion exa- E 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 1018 18
trilliard sextillion zetta- Z 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 1021 21
quadrillion septillion yotta- Y 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 1024 24

The order of magnitude of a number is, intuitively speaking, the number of powers of 10 contained in the number. More precisely, the order of magnitude of a number can be defined in terms of the common logarithm, usually as the integer part of the logarithm, obtained by truncation. For example, the number 4,000,000 has a logarithm (in base 10) of 6.602; its order of magnitude is 6. When truncating, a number of this order of magnitude is between 106 and 107. In a similar example, with the phrase "He had a seven-figure income", the order of magnitude is the number of figures minus one, so it is very easily determined without a calculator to be 6. An order of magnitude is an approximate position on a logarithmic scale.

An order-of-magnitude estimate of a variable whose precise value is unknown is an estimate rounded to the nearest power of ten. For example, an order-of-magnitude estimate for a variable between about 3 billion and 30 billion (such as the human population of the Earth) is 10 billion. To round a number to its nearest order of magnitude, one rounds its logarithm to the nearest integer. Thus 4,000,000, which has a logarithm (in base 10) of 6.602, has 7 as its nearest order of magnitude, because "nearest" implies rounding rather than truncation. For a number written in scientific notation, this logarithmic rounding scale requires rounding up to the next power of ten when the multiplier is greater than the square root of ten (about 3.162). For example, the nearest order of magnitude for 1.7 × 108 is 8, whereas the nearest order of magnitude for 3.7 × 108 is 9. An order-of-magnitude estimate is sometimes also called a zeroth order approximation.

An order-of-magnitude difference between two values is a factor of 10. For example, the mass of the planet Saturn is 95 times that of Earth, so Saturn is two orders of magnitude more massive than Earth. Order-of-magnitude differences are called decades when measured on a logarithmic scale.

Non-decimal orders of magnitude

{{#invoke:see also|seealso}} Other orders of magnitude may be calculated using bases other than 10. The ancient Greeks ranked the nighttime brightness of celestial bodies by 6 levels in which each level was the fifth root of one hundred (about 2.512) as bright as the nearest weaker level of brightness{{ safesubst:#invoke:Unsubst||date=__DATE__ |$B= {{#invoke:Category handler|main}}{{#invoke:Category handler|main}}[citation needed] }}, and thus the brightest level being 5 orders of magnitude brighter than the weakest indicates that it is (1001/5)5 or a factor of 100 times brighter.

The different decimal numeral systems of the world use a larger base to better envision the size of the number, and have created names for the powers of this larger base. The table shows what number the order of magnitude aim at for base 10 and for base 1,000,000. It can be seen that the order of magnitude is included in the number name in this example, because bi- means 2 and tri- means 3 (these make sense in the long scale only), and the suffix -illion tells that the base is 1,000,000. But the number names billion, trillion themselves (here with other meaning than in the first chapter) are not names of the orders of magnitudes, they are names of "magnitudes", that is the numbers 1,000,000,000,000 etc.

order of magnitude is log10 of is log1000000 of short scale long scale
1 10 1,000,000 million million
2 100 1,000,000,000,000 trillion billion
3 1000 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 quintillion trillion

SI units in the table at right are used together with SI prefixes, which were devised with mainly base 1000 magnitudes in mind. The IEC standard prefixes with base 1024 were invented for use in electronic technology.

The ancient apparent magnitudes for the brightness of stars uses the base and is reversed. The modernized version has however turned into a logarithmic scale with non-integer values.

Extremely large numbers

For extremely large numbers, a generalized order of magnitude can be based on their double logarithm or super-logarithm. Rounding these downward to an integer gives categories between very "round numbers", rounding them to the nearest integer and applying the inverse function gives the "nearest" round number.

The double logarithm yields the categories:

..., 1.0023–1.023, 1.023–1.26, 1.26–10, 10–1010, 1010–10100, 10100–101000, ...

(the first two mentioned, and the extension to the left, may not be very useful, they merely demonstrate how the sequence mathematically continues to the left).

The super-logarithm yields the categories:

, or
negative numbers, 0–1, 1–10, 10–1e10, 1e10–101e10, 101e10410, 410–510, etc. (see tetration)

The "midpoints" which determine which round number is nearer are in the first case:

1.076, 2.071, 1453, 4.20e31, 1.69e316,...

and, depending on the interpolation method, in the second case

−.301, .5, 3.162, 1453, 1e1453, , ,... (see notation of extremely large numbers)

For extremely small numbers (in the sense of close to zero) neither method is suitable directly, but of course the generalized order of magnitude of the reciprocal can be considered.

Similar to the logarithmic scale one can have a double logarithmic scale (example provided here) and super-logarithmic scale. The intervals above all have the same length on them, with the "midpoints" actually midway. More generally, a point midway between two points corresponds to the generalised f-mean with f(x) the corresponding function log log x or slog x. In the case of log log x, this mean of two numbers (e.g. 2 and 16 giving 4) does not depend on the base of the logarithm, just like in the case of log x (geometric mean, 2 and 8 giving 4), but unlike in the case of log log log x (4 and 65536 giving 16 if the base is 2, but, otherwise).

See also


Further reading

External links

Template:Orders of magnitude wide