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Liz Wager on the Large Hadron Collider – a qualified success?

9 Sep, 08 | by BMJ Group

Liz WagerNews of the Large Hadron Collider, which is due to smash its first atoms on 10 September, makes me wonder not about subatomic particles but about adjectives. When I teach researchers how to report their work, I generally advise them to be wary of qualifying adjectives as they seem out of place in scientific papers. To describe something as a “large study” seems more dignified than to say it was a “very large study”. Mark Twain got it right (as usual) when he advised writers to “Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very;’ your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”

Yet describing a piece of equipment 27 km long as “large” doesn’t seem to do it justice (although, according to Wikipedia, the “Very Large Hadron Collider” is already being discussed).

And how to teach non-native English speakers the subtle distinction between big and large? Several centuries of history and class struggle are distilled into our instinctive feeling that big (which probably comes from Old Norse) is common and childish while large (which comes from Latin) is clever and grown-up.

Try switching big and large in common phrases and you’ll see what I mean. To say “I am a big fan of your books” speaks solely of one’s literary tastes but to say somebody is a “large fan” might indicate their girth. I suspect that the “big” in Big Bang has only crept in because of the nice alliteration, and to call anything 27 km long “big” would be even sillier than to call it “large.”

Presumably in French, the latest Hadron Collider is “grand,” and in German it is “gross” (since being in Switzerland it must be multilingual). This gives another source of musing about the richness of English in which not everything which is large can be grand, and where gross has grown so large as to be undesirable. Oh the joys of our language! I’m delighted the physicists can worry about smashing atoms. I’m far too busy deconstructing sentences and savouring the adjectives, and for this experiment I don’t need any equipment.

About Liz Wager

Liz Wager is a freelance writer, trainer and publications consultant who works
for a number of pharmaceutical companies, communication agencies, publishers and academic institutions. She is also the Secretary of COPE (the Committee On Publication Ethics) and a member of the BMJ’s Ethics Committee.

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  • Julian Sheather

    Marvellous. How about calling it the ‘Great Hadron Collider’ which would nicely infer the sense that it is at once wonderful, eminent, essential and large in size.

  • http://www.votetheday.com votetheday.com

    Gosh, it’s just a big atom smasher, and the possibility of something dangerous to happen is too small for that something to happen ;) If it would have been real risk, scientists would inform us, or take measures against it, or, after all, never would have thought of taking this idea to reality. So stop worrying, listen to common sense and do not let this rumor by fools take over your mind.
    http://www.votetheday.com/polls/worlds-largest-particle-accelerator-experiment-214/

  • http://www.unipathos.com Professor Pranab Kumar Bhattacharya, IPGMER Kolkata,W.B, India

    The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is a gigantic scientific instrument near Geneva, where it spans the border between Switzerland and France about 100 m underground. It is a particle accelerator used by physicists to study the smallest known particles – the fundamental building blocks of all things.Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN when will be injecting its first beams, beginning an experimental program that will produce proton-proton collisions at an energy of 14 TeV. It will revolutionise our understanding, from the minuscule world deep within atoms to the vastness of the Universe, the moment of Big Bang.Basically, the collider is a series of tubes intended to guide protons as superconducting magnets propel them close to the speed of light.The Large Hadron Colliders’ experiment will successfully creates quark-gluon plasma, a substance theorized to have existed just milliseconds after the Big Bang. By generating temperatures more than 100,000 times hotter than the sun, scientists hope to watch as this particle goo cools and expands into the particles that we know. In LHC at best a micro Black hole may be created& to prove S.W Hawkings Radiation and he may expect a nobel prize if it creats so. Will that energy of Micro Black hole be able even to ignite a bulb?. even if it will happen it will evaporate away i think. I think that there remains no possibility that a Micro Black Hole will eventually become a mcro black hole to en gulf the whole earth. I hope it is absolutely safe. But it will ravel the Higgs Boson particles responsible for mass of all particles in the universe & to award Peter Higgs NObel prize for physics I belief.. Professor Pranab Kumar Bhattacharya

  • Anthony Papagiannis

    Putting pure “knowledge for the sake of knowledge” aside, will the LHC provide us with more wisdom, common sense, realization of our relative minuteness in the universe, or awe and respect for the marvellous creation in which we live (to say nothing of its Creator), or just add fuel to our collective arrogance and sense of scientific supremacy? The phrase “modern tower of Babel” springs to mind when one considers the magnitude of the enterprise.

  • Brian Derby

    The Big Bang was named by Fred Hoyle as a mark of derision for a theory that competed with his Steady State theory of cosmolgy. I guess this fits in with your original distinction between big and large.

  • http://network.nature.com/blogs/user/rpg rpg

    The other question is,

    Is it a large collider of hadrons, or a collider of large hadrons?

    We should be told.

  • Mr. Rupak Bhattacharya, Purbapalli, Sodepur,24 parganas(north), W.B Kol-110

    what is the utility of 9.7 billion dollars Large Hadron collider experiment for the benifit of humanity at large? will the higgs boson findings or subatomic quarks or its color or neutrinos or more fundamental particle detection or their anti particle finding or CDM or dark energy findings or antimatter findings becomes at all helpfull for people in Medical diagnosis or in some other ways in theraputics or in any other technologies? or it is just an billion dollars experiment of CERN?

  • Dr John Corish

    I’m no nuclear physicist, but it is my understanding that the smaller a black hole is then the greater its gravitational pull. So it’s not terribly reassuring to hear the 10,000 odd scientists reputedly collaborating on this project say that it will only, at most, create “small” black holes. What happens if they’re very, very, very small ones? I understand they’re not going to start colliding the particle beams until some day next week, so I guess we’ll have to wait until then to find out.

    As far as I can see, most of the opponents of LHC are religious cranks of the doomsday obsessed variety. However, there is one credible scientific voice in opposition, Professor Otto Ossler, and I think his concerns are worthy of respect: http://www.scientificblogging.com/big_science_gambles/interview_professor_otto_rossler_takes_on_the_lhc

    If these concerns are justified then the earth will disappear down a plug-hole next week. However, at least we know it will all be over quickly, one trillionth of a second or less – a very, very, very short period of time.

  • Liz Wager

    Thanks so much for telling me about the origin of the phrase ‘Big Bang’ (which I should have researched before pontificating about it, but didn’t, so it’s reassuring that I was on the right track). And, of course, Steady State fits in nicely with my theory of alliteration.

    I hope somebody who really knows about the subject will explain what a hadron is but, as I understand it, hadrons are subatomic particles such as protons and neutrons … so I reckon we can safely assume it is the colider that’s large, not the hadrons — but it’s a good reminder of the potential dangers of stringing adjectives together.

  • Hazel Thornton

    I find it interesting that comments on your blog (apart from the first one) comment on the prop that you used on which to hang the purpose (as I saw it) of your piece. This was, I thought, to show us how words, particularly adjectives, are used, and the richness of the English language compared with the multilingual possibilities that are found on the borders of Switzerland.

    The metaphor in your using the buried equipment as a prop was also very neat. Perhaps, like debates on homeopathy, this one will carry on whizzing round and round in circles! But then, `the ring` is a fascinating device that has been used for conveying many things.

  • Dr John Corish

    Ah, another Friday and we’re all still here. So poor old Professor Rossler’s fears were unfounded after all.

    Mind you, the good boffins at CERN seem to have gone very quiet: has they discovered the so-called “God particle” or not? It would be nice to know.

  • Dr John Corish

    Apologies for the preceding post: I’ve checked the CERN website and it does not appear that they’ve actually started colliding the particle beams yet. So Professor Rossler may yet be vindicated.

    http://lhc.web.cern.ch/lhc/News.htm

  • John Corish

    Now they’ve shut the contraption down for two months because of a “Helium leak”: how safe is that?

    I see a Nobel Prize at the end of all this – for Professor Otto Rossler!

  • http://www.checkersguide.com/ Chinese Checkers

    This is the most powerful and the largest project in the history of human science, which has shaken the head of the whole world, with it’s life taking threats. But everything went fine.
    Moreover, a TV news channel claimed that the machine stopped working just after a few hours of it started. If this is right, it’s a matter of pity.
    I think these are all such rumours are meant to spoil the status of biggest machine ever :)

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