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Five questions with Fabiola Gianotti

Fabiola Gianotti is a particle physicist at CERN, the European laboratory for particle physics in Switzerland generally accepted as one of the greatest research centres in the world. In 2012, she announced that the ATLAS experiment at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) had discovered the Higgs boson, together with the other big LHC experiment, CMS. In 2016 Fabiola will become the 16th person to lead CERN as Director-General and the first woman to do so. For any designers reading this, Fabiola’s also well known for her love of the typeface Comic Sans.

What are the most significant shifts affecting your world?
At CERN we operate the biggest and most powerful accelerator ever built by mankind - the Large Hadron Collider. The LHC is housed in a 27km ring 100m underground. It allows 2 beams of high-energy protons circulating in the two different directions – clockwise and anti-­clockwise – to collide at 4 points of the ring where 4 giant particle detectors are installed. It took over 25 years of effort by the international community to build the accelerator and the experiments, which are jewels of technology. Many of the technologies we developed at CERN have been transferred to society, from the worldwide web to instruments for medical applications.

During the first LHC operation period (2010-13) we recorded a lot of data and produced a wealth of beautiful physics results. The highlight was the discovery of the Higgs boson. This tiny particle is special and it’s a key element to understand why the universe is what it is. Without the Higgs boson, elementary particles like the electrons and quarks, which are the fundamental constituents of atoms, would not have a mass. And if electrons and quarks did not have a mass, atoms could not stick together – and matter as we know it would not exist. The universe and even us would not exist in the form that we know – so the Higgs boson is a crucial part of our understanding of nature.

Understanding the origin of the particle masses is only one of the crucial questions for which the Large Hadron Collider was conceived and built. With the discovery of the Higgs boson we have answered that question, but there are many others. For instance, when we look at the nice sky at night, what we see, stars and galaxies, are only 4% of the universe. The remaining 96% is dark. Dark means that it is made of forms of matter and energy that we don’t know (yet) and that do not interact with our instruments. So one of the most exciting goals of the LHC in the coming years will be to discover the particle that is responsible for dark matter, if such a particle is accessible at the energies explored by the LHC. If this happens, it will be a big triumph, as it will explain what comprises about 25% of the universe when today we only understand about 4%.

There are many more mysteries to investigate, such as why the universe is made up mainly of matter, with very little anti matter, how to describe the fundamental forces in one framework, etc.

What do you see as the key growth areas for you over the next 12 months?
At CERN we try to understand the fundamental constituents of matter and how the universe works.  The LHC starts to operate again in the coming weeks after two years of shut down. We will be able to collide proton beams at higher energy than before (almost a factor of two higher) and therefore we should be able to explore the above mentioned and other questions with larger opportunities for success.

To achieve these exciting scientific goals, we develop cutting edge technologies in a huge number of sectors, from superconducting magnets to cryogenics, electronics, just to mention a few. Many of the technologies we create go on to be used in a variety of useful ways across the world and in ways that affect all of us. So when people ask how discovering the Higgs boson will change our lives, I answer that it has already. Because we had to develop so much innovative technology in order to discover this particle, which is already being used to make our lives better.

CERN is also an incredible human adventure and a concrete example of peace. Here, more than 10000 scientists from all over the world (over 100 different nationalities) work together peacefully, animated by the shared passion for science and for advancing the frontier of knowledge.

Does ‘brand’ play any role in promoting what you do?
Research is not much a question of ‘brand’. But I think it’s very important that scientists come out of the laboratory to explain what they do. Science and knowledge are a legacy and a wealth for mankind. Scientists don’t do what they do just for themselves. Ultimately, they do it for everybody. If I am an artist and paint something, it is not just to hang it in my room. Knowledge and art belong to everybody, and it’s our duty to show society what we are doing. Education is also extremely important – from the youngest age to university. Teachers are responsible for propagating knowledge but also for making as many fields of knowledge accessible to the kids. I’m very perturbed when I hear young people say they hate mathematics. If they hate mathematics it’s because they were not taught mathematics in the most attractive way. Indeed, mathematics can be fun, it can be a game and so stimulating from an intellectual point of view. This is one of the reasons why at CERN we run programmes for teachers and students, as well as physics, computing and accelerator schools for young physicists. Direct experience in a scientific laboratory like CERN really helps people understand science better and to get passionate. We promote outreach and education, to engage more and more of the public at all ages and levels.

Often we, scientists, are not able to explain science in a simple way and the public thinks that what we do is extremely complex, intricate and impenetrable. But physics is simple. The fundamental laws of physics can be written on a page, they are elegant and beautiful.

What or who inspired you in the early years of your career?
I was a curious child and asked myself many questions, like why do the stars stick to the sky, where do we come from, where are we going, why do things work the way they do in nature? At the age of 16-17, when deciding what to study at University, I thought that physics might help me answer some of these questions. Furthermore, when I was 17 I read a biography of Marie Curie which impressed me a lot. I enjoyed the kind of domestic way she did physics. She would be cooking supper in one room and then go into another room to check on how her tests of radioactive materials were progressing. It gave me a sense of how integral physics is to day to day life. It was really something special. Of course, at that time I would never have predicted that I would be working in the biggest experiment in the world in the future. I mean the ATLAS detector is 45 m long and certainly wouldn’t fit in my apartment!

My father was a geologist and he transferred a love of nature, curiosity and attention to the detail. We would take long walks in the mountains and stop to admire a little flower or an insect. My mother was in the field of humanities and literature. So at home we would chat about everything. The discussions were always interesting and entertaining and not just around science. My parents taught me intellectual rigour and breadth, and the love for knowledge. I don’t regret my education in humanities as it was complementary to what I did later on. It was great that I could study humanities up to 18 and still choose a scientific direction for my university topic. It’s very important that the school system does not close paths too early.

What advice would you pass on to others starting out?
My general advice is not of course to only study physics! Choose something you love and do it with courage, passion and determination. Be stubborn, in the right sense of the word, i.e. facing challenges with determination and without being scared of them. At the same time be modest and humble. Because only by being modest and humble can we hope to give our best. Also, we realize every day how limited what we know is, in every branch of knowledge, compared to what we don’t know. Newton used to say “what we know is a droplet, what we don’t know is an ocean”. So only if we are humble and modest can we hope to make a step up and advance our understanding.

I believe each one of us as an individual can bring something special to our work. Our DNA is different, our personality is different and we can bring our specific talents to what we do. We should preserve the richness and diversity of mankind from gender, ethnicity, culture, religion etc. It’s good that the world becomes more global and barriers are reduced while at the same time we maintain our personality, origin and tradition as our originality also comes from that while working together. We should celebrate our individuality as well our collaboration. I find this inspiring.

I loved everything and at the end decided on physics. But whatever I had pursued, I think I would have made it with similar enthusiasm. When we do something we like, we commit in depth and with passion. If I had 10 different lives I would engage in 10 different directions. My advice is to explore what you enjoy and to find your passion.