Catherine Westfall Comments on Name Change (Release)

Catherine Westfall Comments on Name Change

Lawrence Cranberg's comments on traditions of naming publicly funded enterprises, with emphasis on the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility ("Letters," February, page 13), got me thinking - perhaps because I wrote my dissertation on the founding of Fermilab, because I now serve as the Jefferson Lab historian and because I have an on going history project at Berkeley Lab, which just went through its own name change.

The National Accelerator Laboratory was renamed the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory at the instigation of a group of Italian-American congressmen who wanted national recognition for an Italian scientist. The Radiation Laboratory at Berkeley was first renamed for its city and founder after Lawrence's death, and recently became the Ernest Orlando Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Several labs, such as Argonne National Laboratory, bear local place names. The Clinton P. Anderson Los Alamos Meson Facility was named for a prominent New Mexican congressman.

As a professional listener, I can tell you: Names changes provoke discomfort and questioning. At the laboratory, people ask, How dare they change our name without my permission? Outsiders ask, Who do they think they are? And then there are just jokes: Why don't we just call it The Lab? All the while, change brings complications and continued challenge. In the old days, the Berkeley Rad Lab was confused with the MIT Rad Lab; today, Berkeley Lab is confused with its sister lab in Livermore. Fermilab is sometimes mistaken for the Fermi reactors.

Those who question name changes are on the right track; after all, names should fairly identify who we are and our place in the world. Overall, I think the names of laboratories remind us that publicly funded scientific projects have a wide constituency: They serve political and cultural, as well as scientific, interests, and they represent cities and regions, as well as our nation as a whole.

Catherine Westfall
Okemos, Michigan