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#Inspiredbyher. Fabiola Gianotti, Italy’s lady of physics, searching for the secrets of the Universe

The greatest particle physics research center in the world is run by a woman. Fabiola Gianotti made history when in 2016 she became the first female director of CERN, the European organization in charge of the world’s most powerful particle accelerator. But before leading the center, Gianotti became known as the woman responsible with the project devised to find the God Particle.

Fabiola Gianotti is probably one of the most recognizable faces of particle physics. But while she is now best known for her involvement with the Atlas project, designed to identify the Higgs boson, Gainotti did not immediately opt for physics. As her sense of humor and charm indicate, Gianotti has a big love of art and philosophy. She was attracted by these two domains as she was interested in the questions they raised, she opted for physics as a way of finding the big answers to some of those questions. And when she started studying in Milan, she went into experimental particle physics, a domain that promised to offer an answer to the biggest question of all, “What is matter?”

And for a particle physicist, there was no other place to be at than the European Organization for Nuclear Research in Switzerland, the home of the world’s most powerful particle accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider. Gianotti had a fellowship here and went on to work on several experiments.

In search of God and the secrets of matter

Fabiola Gianotti Italy's lady of physics
souce: wikimedia commons

While at CERN, and before becoming the image of the search for the Higgs boson, Gianotti worked for several other experiments, including the WA70, that studied direct photons, the UA2 experiment that, along with UA1, led to the discovery of the W and Z bosons and the ALEPH experiment, the detector built to find the direction and momenta of charged particles with extreme accuracy in order to explore the physics predicted by the Standard Model. And all these proved to be just a preparation for the biggest task of all, that of leading thousands of scientists, from different universities around the world, on the biggest quest yet, the search for the God particle.

The secret of matter

Fabiola Gianotti became internationally known when she assumed the position of spokesperson for one of the most exciting experiments done with the LHC. She led the project between 2009 and 2013, taking over from Peter Jenni. It was a high stress job and with the public coverage, there was significant pressure as the world was watching scientists in search of what was called the God particle.

Gianotti had to manage a quite heterogeneous team with 3,000 researchers from 177 universities and 38 countries. But she was up to the tasks and, according to colleagues, she did it all with a smile on her face.

It was a quest that reads like a true detective story starting with a theoretical prediction and continuing with 40 years of scientific work just to make the devices capable of doing the experiments needed in order to confirm the hypothesis. And the question the researchers were trying to answer was by no means an easy one. Scientists were looking to confirm the theory that explained the unexpected mass of particles. This was the unique challenge behind Europe’s particle accelerator.

The LHC is one of the world’s most expensive and complex experimental facilities to date. And given the LHC’s unprecedented energy and extremely high rate of collisions, it required Atlas to be larger and more complex than any detector ever built. Gianotti was put in charge of this remarkable equipment, designed to tell the world how particles suddenly developed their mass.

By 2011, the world was looking at Gianotti as the one responsible to confirm or infirm the existence of the Higgs boson and in the summer of 2012, social media was a buzz with the rumor that somewhere in Switzerland, scientists already had the answer. And all was confirmed on 4 July 2012 when two independent teams, CSM and Atlas, announced that they had a candidate for the Higgs boson.

As Gianotti went on to explain to the public the findings, their implication to everyday life and their significance for the scientific community, she underlined that the discovery was just the beginning.

“It represents the beginning of a new era of exploration, to understand much better this particle and to see if this particle has any other sisters or brothers that we might discover later on. This is not the end of the story. It’s the beginning. We have to study and understand its nature,” Gianotti told the public in a CERN update regarding the finding.

The never ending quest for answers

Fabiola Gianotti
copyright: CERN

For Gianotti’s career, this was certainly true as two years later, on 12 December 2014, Fabiola Gianotti signed her five-year contract as the new CERN Director-General with tenure to begin in January 2016. She was democratically elected to head the organization and this was another reason making her tenure even more remarkable.

She never complained about how hard it was for a woman to make her way through such a male-dominated field but she once stated that for women doing physics research there is little support when having children.

Leader of the scientific community

Fabiola Gianotti
copyright: CERN

And heading the entire organization was not going to be an easy task as she already knew from leading the Atlas project. There is pressure to perform and show results, tensions are running high and there is a constant need to show something to justify to the public the expenses made. And with her new position, came new responsibilities as Gianotti will not only be heading CERN, but also became the leader of one of the most important scientific communities in the world. In her own words, CERN is there “to push the frontiers of knowledge and science.”

A year after taking office, Gianotti says that what was most rewarding to her was that every day she learned something new.

“It is an honor to be the director-general of such a fantastic organization. And what is most rewarding for me is that every day, every single day, in 2016, I learned something new. There is nothing more exciting and more rewarding, I think, for a human being,” said Gianotti.

Of God, music, cooking and ballet

Fabiola Gianotti
copyright: CERN

The renowned physicist, looking for answers in the tinniest building blocks of nature, is enthralled with music. In interviews she talks about her passion for ballet and it’s hard not to observe that she does look like a ballerina, twirling her away to finding the answers of the universe. She once admitted that as a child she wanted to dance for the Bolshoi Ballet and the same poise, commitment, grace and elegance seem to have guided her in the physics laboratories. And her love of music and ballet is completed by her passion for cooking, all of them illustrating her inclination for precise and exact movements.

Gianotti is rightfully  called Italy’s lady of physics and there is no wonder, given that the country’s relationship with the Holy See and her involvement in looking for the God particle, that Gianotti had to face questions about her own faith and religion in general. In interviews she stated that for her, science and religion are not incompatible as they deal with “two different spheres”.

Planning for the future

Fabiola Gianotti
copyright: CERN

For 2017, her second year in office, Gianotti is looking forward to the general maintenance and consolidation of the LHC and she is hopeful that experiments will be reassumed with the collider in the spring. Projects are underway to find additional data for the X boson, a largely unknown particle.

But while data collection and interpretation are paramount to the future of particle physics, the director is left in charge to put in place plans that will assure that CERN will continue to be the leading organization in its field. Gianotti is looking over medium and long-term plans that include upgrading the LHC while pushing forward new accelerator technologies and looking into plasma accelerators and future high-energy colliders.

And she is hard at work in promoting science, collaboration and the work done at CERN as she is convinced that what physicist find in their laboratories will continue to benefit the whole of humanity.

““Places such as CERN become ever more important: places where people from around the world come together to show what can be achieved when people overcome their differences to work towards common goals that ultimately bring benefit to all of humanity,” Gianotti said at the beginning of the year.

Sylvia Jacob