What is the Point of the Large Hadron Collider?

As you no doubt know, there’s been a great deal of online buzz about the Large Hadron Collider, and how they recently flipped the big on switch. My physics career ended at grade 12, so I really had no idea–aside from some PR-powered notions about the origins of the universe–what the LHC was for. Then I watched Brian Cox’s TED talk, and things became much clearer:

http://static.videoegg.com/ted2/flash/loader.swf

Professor Cox makes for an odd but engaging speaker.

I should mention, in passing, that the ‘Large Hadron Collider’ is yet another example of poor naming. It’s what happens, in my experience, when the scientific or engineering term sticks and gets used by the general public. Other recent examples are ‘global warming’ and ‘network neutrality’. The names of things matter. It would be easier to get people to care if ‘network neutrality’ was commonly known as ‘network discrimination’ or even ‘network prejudice’. I can’t think of a better name for the LHC, but I’m pretty sure one exists.

No post about the LHC would be complete without a reference to the associated rap hit.

6 comments

  1. At the risk of being even snarkier than usual, I’m not terribly surprised to hear a PR person critiquing the name of a science project. (One imagines that Swiss foodies are, as we speak, discussing the LHC cafeteria).

    However, the LHC is large, it deals primarily with hadrons, and these big machines are indeed knocking particles together.

    The name is probably obscure (what’s a hadron?) to the uninitiated, but given the nature of this project there’s not much transparency to be had. Powerful Proton Pusher? Superconducting Super Duper Collider? Larry the Science Project? Superconducting Hadron Annihilation Machine? Higgshound? Phys-X?

  2. Gary: Thanks for that–I guess I’m not alone in my thinking.

    Ryan: I agree–marketers, politicians and, well, nearly everybody, often use labels to obfuscate, bolster or otherwise misrepresent things.

    However, layers of abstraction can be used for good as well (see also the book ‘Made to Stick’). I’m often a fan of the name ‘saying what it does on the tin’. But only when your target audience can understand it.

    In the case of the LHC, I often see it described as “replicating conditions at the very beginning of the universe”. That’s accurate, I think, and far more comprehensible than ‘a large device that collides hadrons’.

    I don’t have a good alternative name off the top of my head–hopefully the UK public does.

    Another argument (one I only sort of subscribe to) is that we shouldn’t underestimate the ability of good names to inspire. Which speaks more to our hearts and minds: “Challenger” or “Orbiting Space Shuttle”?

  3. Transparent? Comprehensible? How about “The Biggest Science Project You’ve Ever Paid For!”

    Too transparent, perhaps? ๐Ÿ™‚

    I’m gonna submit “Big Bang Ring Thang” to the contest.

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