Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Fabiola Gianotti: The woman at the leading edge of physics - CNN

As an experimental physicist at CERN, Fabiola Gianotti is looking for dark matter, extra dimensions and an elusive particle which could prove theories about the structure of the universe.As an experimental physicist at CERN, Fabiola Gianotti is looking for dark matter, extra dimensions and an elusive particle which could prove theories about the structure of the universe.
Gianotti and colleagues await the Large Hadron Collider's first observable proton-proton collision, after its launch in November 2009.Gianotti and colleagues await the Large Hadron Collider's first observable proton-proton collision, after its launch in November 2009.
A photon source is seen in the CERN visitors' center in Switzerland. Gianotti says she finds particle collisions "very interesting from a scientific point of view, but also beautiful, from an aesthetic point of view."A photon source is seen in the CERN visitors' center in Switzerland. Gianotti says she finds particle collisions "very interesting from a scientific point of view, but also beautiful, from an aesthetic point of view."
In the early hours of March 30, 2010, shortly after the ATLAS detector achieved a record-breaking, high-energy collision, Gianotti (left) declared "It's the beginning of a new era of physics exploration."In the early hours of March 30, 2010, shortly after the ATLAS detector achieved a record-breaking, high-energy collision, Gianotti (left) declared "It's the beginning of a new era of physics exploration."
Last December, hundreds of scientists gathered to hear and applaud Gianotti's update on the ATLAS team's search for the Higgs Boson particle.Last December, hundreds of scientists gathered to hear and applaud Gianotti's update on the ATLAS team's search for the Higgs Boson particle.
Gianotti, who studied piano at Milan Conservatory, says it is common for physicists to be attracted to music. "Einstein was a very good violinist," she says. "Physicists need to be inventive, to have ideas, to have some fantasy. In some sense, art and physics are much closer than you would think."Gianotti, who studied piano at Milan Conservatory, says it is common for physicists to be attracted to music. "Einstein was a very good violinist," she says. "Physicists need to be inventive, to have ideas, to have some fantasy. In some sense, art and physics are much closer than you would think."
Gianotti accompanies theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking on a tour of the ATLAS cavern in 2006.Gianotti accompanies theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking on a tour of the ATLAS cavern in 2006.
Researchers say societal attitudes and family environments influence whether girls pursue science careers. The daughter of a geologist and literature teacher, Gianotti jokes that she often argues with her brother, an electrical engineer, "with me saying that an engineer does not have the vision of a physicist and him saying that a physicist is not even able to fix a lightbulb."Researchers say societal attitudes and family environments influence whether girls pursue science careers. The daughter of a geologist and literature teacher, Gianotti jokes that she often argues with her brother, an electrical engineer, "with me saying that an engineer does not have the vision of a physicist and him saying that a physicist is not even able to fix a lightbulb."
"Of course, mankind has made giant steps forward," Gianotti, pictured here in 2011, says. "However, what we know is really very, very little compared to what we still have to know.""Of course, mankind has made giant steps forward," Gianotti, pictured here in 2011, says. "However, what we know is really very, very little compared to what we still have to know."
CERN runs the world's biggest particle collider, located on the outskirts of Geneva. One of the first tasks assigned to the giant machine has been to step up the quest for the Higgs Boson to resolve one of physics' great puzzles: why some particles have mass and others have little, or none.CERN runs the world's biggest particle collider, located on the outskirts of Geneva. One of the first tasks assigned to the giant machine has been to step up the quest for the Higgs Boson to resolve one of physics' great puzzles: why some particles have mass and others have little, or none.
  • Fabiola Gianotti runs the Large Hadron Collider's largest detector at CERN laboratories.
  • Gianotti expects to confirm or refute our current explanation for the structure of the universe by the end of the year.
  • Women make up less than a third of scientists in Europe and less than a quarter in the US.

(CNN) -- As coordinator for the world's biggest science experiment, Fabiola Gianotti occupies one of the top jobs in science.

Housed in an underground facility straddling the border between France and Switzerland, CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research) is the beating heart of modern physics research. A collaboration of 20 member states, it's also where the world wide web was invented in 1989.

After 18 years at CERN, Gianotti became spokesperson and coordinator of the lab's ATLAS experiment, which employs 3000 scientists. Her role -- a democratically elected position -- is to lead the experiment's strategic planning and present its findings to international media.

What we know is really very, very little compared to what we still have to know.
Fabiola Gianotti, CERN

ATLAS is the largest detector at CERN, used to record collisions between protons accelerated in the 27km Large Hadron Collider, described as "the planet's most powerful human-built microscope".

It's hoped that, by observing these collisions, which replicate conditions straight after the Big Bang, scientists can address such world-changing questions as the origin of mass, the constitution of dark matter, how fundamental forces unify, and whether there are more than three or four dimensions.

After some initial teething problems, the Large Hadron Collider has this year been cranked up to full power, and has delivered more data in April and June than in the whole of 2011.

The experiment has captured the world's imagination, with "Higgsteria" observable on Twitter, where #HiggsRumors became a trending topic on June 20, as enthusiasts anticipated an announcement about the detector's preliminary 2012 results. (It will screen here, on July 4, at 7am GMT).

Scientists at the US Department of Energy's Fermilab in Illinois believe they may also be close to discovering the elusive particle.

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In particular, physics nuts hope such experiments will finally prove or refute the existence of a type of particle called the Higgs Boson. If discovered, this particle would confirm currently accepted theories about the structure of the universe.

"I couldn't tell you which (outcome) I would prefer," Gianotti says. "Building a new particle is very nice but also demonstrating that a mechanism that has been proposed as the solution for many years is not the correct one is a major step forward for fundamental science."

"Of course, mankind has made giant steps forward," she says. "However, what we know is really very, very little compared to what we still have to know."

See also: How girl geeks can get the best tech jobs

"It's important we try to do things we love," she adds, but she also advises scientists to be "extremely patient and extremely humble."

Gianotti's career is statistically exceptional. Female scientists are in the minority, accounting for around 30% of Europe's researchers, according to reports by the European Commission and UNESCO.

A European Commission report notes that, although "girls' underachievement in maths has narrowed in all countries and is on the way to disappearing in most of them," girls tend to lose interest in science in their first three years of secondary school, and believe themselves to be worse than boys at physics, even when their grades are not.

In the United States, a report by the National Science Foundation which came to the same conclusion, observed that even girls who are good at maths show less interest in science careers.

I had this curiosity that pushed me towards...the fundamental questions.
Fabiola Gianotti, CERN

This suggests that, for every Gianotti, there are many more who give up. Yet Gianotti has made it to the top of her field, and is involved at the highest levels in historically significant and pioneering work. What went right for her?

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An aerial view of Switzerland near Geneva and Lake Leman with a circle showing the 16-mile circumference of the Large Hadron Collider.
An aerial view of Switzerland near Geneva and Lake Leman with a circle showing the 16-mile circumference of the Large Hadron Collider.

Born in Milan, Gianotti was not drawn to science as a girl. She was educated at a "liceo classico," a type of Italian secondary school with an emphasis on art history, literature and ancient languages, and "very little mathematics or physics," she says.

The daughter of a geologist, Gianotti says she grew up with a love of nature and an immense curiosity about the world around her, fueled by "endless" walks in the mountains, when her father would stop to show "a flower or a plant or a little insect."

As a teenager, Gianotti became interested in philosophy, "a discipline that at least asks the fundamental questions," but took the unusual step of choosing to study physics at university.

"Physics also tried to address the fundamental questions, and often could give an answer," she says. "Perhaps not the final answer, perhaps just a little step forward. I liked it immediately," she says.

Although she moved from artistic fields into science, Gianotti, who also studied piano at Milan Conservatory, says "art and physics are much closer than you would think".

"Art is based on very clear, mathematical principles like proportion and harmony. At the same time, physicists need to be inventive, to have ideas, to have some fantasy."

The National Science Foundation's report suggests that fewer women pursue science careers because women are more likely to prefer work with "a clear social purpose," and "most people do not view (science and technology) occupations as directly benefiting society."

But Gianotti says one of the most appealing aspects of her job is the broader applications for the cutting-edge technologies being developed at CERN. For example, 17,000 of the world's 30,000 accelerators are used for medical applications such as cancer therapy, she says.

Working alongside scientists from 38 countries is another perk. "For me, this job is, of course, a great scientific adventure but it's also a great human adventure," she says.

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