Now that the Large Hadron Collider is stumbling towards full operation, perhaps it's time to clarify how to parse (and interpret, and pronounce) its name. Is it the [large [hadron collider]] or the [[large hadron] collider]? Is it a device for colliding hadrons (in the way that a particle accelerator accelerates particles, and an atom smasher smashes atoms) or just a collider whose operation depends essentially on hadrons (in the way that a hydrogen bomb depends on hydrogen, and a lithium-ion battery depends on lithium ions)?) And is the main phrase stress on the last word ("collider") or on the middle word ("hadron")?
Earlier this year, in a Physics Forum thread discussing a History Channel show about the LHC, Sarah Heck asked:
Also, this may be a stupid question, but why is it called the Large Hadron Collider? Is it because the collider is large, or because it will be colliding large hadrons?
To which one of the show's producers answered:
To answer your question, it is indeed called the "Large" Hadron Collider due to the size of the machine. The "Hadrons" are your basic hydrogen protons.
That's what I always thought. Although the LHC will also eventually collide lead 208 nuclei, I'm pretty sure that its name is meant to be understood as referring to a hadron collider that is large, rather than a collider of large hadrons. (Anyhow, physicists don't refer to multi-nucleon nuclei as hadrons, do they? Though if only proton beams were going to collide, why not call it the "large proton collider"?)
This analysis, I also thought, implies that the inner part of the name, "hadron collider", is a noun-noun compound, whose first element is a noun, whose second element is an agentive nominalization, and whose first element is construed as the object of (the verb in) its second element. This makes it exactly like "particle accelerator" or "football player" or "beer distributor". A "hadron collider" collides hadrons, just as a "particle accelerator" accelerates particles, a "football player" plays football, or a "beer distributor" distributes beer.
But recently I started to wonder. In those two-element agentive compounds, we expect the main stress to go on the first element: PARTICLE accelerator, BEER distributor, FOOTBALL player… and HADRON collider. Adding the adjective "large" in the beginning shouldn't affect the stress pattern of the following noun compound at all, any more than it does in phrases like "the first particle accelerator" or "a successful beer distributor".
But most of the time, I hear the main stress on collider, with the expected rhythmic alteration of stresses before that.
Thus from Studio 360 with Kurt Andersen, 9/19/2008:
And from a CERNTV promotional video:
This might mean that people are not really thinking of hadron as the object of collider, but rather as a sort of modifier. Then a "hadron collider" would not be like a "particle accelerator" — morphosyntactically speaking — but like a "hydrogen bomb" or a "stealth fighter" or a "pebble bed reactor", which have main stress on their final element.
In any event, quite a few people are thinking about this device as a way to make large hadrons collide. We see evidence of this in jocular blog posts by non-experts:
…if there’s no down side to predicting the end of the world via the collision of large hadrons (which end is delayed, though still obviously inevitable) then there’s no down side to predicting the complete and utter collapse of the world financial system …
But also, curiously, experts of various kinds tell us, apparently with a straight face, things like this ("What are large hadrons, and why should we make them collide?"):
So, in summary, large hadrons are subatomic particles much more massive than protons. We want to make them collide to answer fundamental questions about what we’re made of, and how it got to be that way.
And back in 1998, the Berkeley Lab Research Review, in an article with the cute title "Desperately Seeking SUSY", gave a subsection the title "When Large Hadrons Collide". This is a pair of classical references, not meant to imply any linguistic or physical analyses, but still.
Let me make it clear that I'm not complaining that "people are doing it wrong". It's just that the way people usually pronounce this phrase puzzles me, and I wonder — is this because they're thinking about large hadrons as a modifier of collider; or just because that's what they've heard other people say?
These questions are especially pointed ones because I find myself joining most others in saying large hadron collider. In my case, I think it's some combination of "that's what I've heard" and "I never thought about it much". Until now. In the future, I'm not sure what my excuse will be.