Meet The Most Powerful Woman In Particle Physics

Fabiola Gianotti has some very big goals.
Fabiola Gianotti, CERN's new director-general
Fabiola Gianotti, CERN's new director-general

Fabiola Gianotti isn't new to CERN, the Geneva, Switzerland-based research organization that operates the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the world's biggest particle collider. In fact, the Italian particle physicist was among the CERN scientists who made history in 2012 with the discovery of the Higgs boson.

But now Gianotti isn't just working at CERN. As the organization's new director-general -- the first woman ever to hold the position -- she's running the show. And though expanding our knowledge of the subatomic realm remains her main focus, she's acutely aware that she is now a high-visibility role model for women around the world.

"Physics is widely regarding as a male-dominated field, and it's true that there are more men in our community than women," Gianotti told The Huffington Post in an email. "So I am glad if in my new role I can contribute to encourage young women to undertake a job in scientific research with the certitude that they have the same opportunities as men."

Recently, HuffPost Science posed a few questions to Gianotti via email. Here, lightly edited, are her answers.

How will things be different for you in your new role?

My new role is very interesting and stimulating, and I feel very honored to have been offered it. The range of issues I have to deal with is much broader than before and includes scientific strategy and planning, budget, personnel aspects, relations with a large variety of stakeholders, etc. Days are long and full, and I am learning many new things. And there is nothing more enriching and gratifying than learning.

What's a typical day like for you?

Super-hectic, super-speedy and ... atypical!

What do you think explains the gender gap in science generally and in physics particularly?

There are many factors. There's no difference in ability between men and women, that's for sure. And in my experience, the more diverse a team is, the stronger it is. There is the baggage of history, of course, which takes a long time to overcome. There is the question of the lack of role models, and there is the question of making workplaces more family friendly. We need to enable parents, men or women, to take breaks to raise families and we need to support parents with infrastructure and facilities.

The Large Hadron Collider, Geneva, Switzerland.
The Large Hadron Collider, Geneva, Switzerland.

Your term as CERN's director-general is scheduled to last five years. What are your goals for CERN during this period?

The second run of the LHC is the top priority for CERN in the coming years. We got off to a very good start in 2015, and have three years of data-taking ahead of us before we go into the accelerator's second long shutdown. The experiments are expected to record at least three times more data than in Run 1 at an energy almost twice as large. It will be a long time before another such step in energy will be made in the future.

So, the coming years are going to be an exciting period for high-energy physics. But CERN is not just the LHC. We have a variety of experiments and facilities, including precise measurements of rare decays and detailed studies of antimatter, to mention just a couple of them. In parallel with the ongoing program, we will be working to ensure a healthy long-term future for CERN, at first with the high-luminosity LHC upgrade scheduled to come on stream in the middle of the next decade, and also through a range of design studies looking at the post-LHC era -- from 2035 onwards.

What discoveries can we reasonably expect from CERN during your term?

I'm afraid that I don't have a crystal ball to hand. There will be a wealth of excellent physics results from the LHC Run 2 and from other CERN experiments. We'll certainly get to know the Higgs boson much better and expand our exploration of physics beyond the Standard Model. Whether we find any hints of the new physics everyone is so eagerly waiting for, however, I don't know. We know there's new physics to be found. Good as it is, the Standard Model explains only the 5 percent of the universe that is visible. There are so many exciting questions still waiting to be answered.

There is nothing more enriching and gratifying than learning. Fabiola Gianotti, CERN director-general

What are the biggest opportunities at CERN? The biggest challenges?

These two questions have a single answer. Over the coming years, the greatest opportunities and challenges, not only for CERN but for the global particle physics community as a whole, come from the changing nature of the field. Collaboration between regions is growing. CERN recently signed a set of agreements with the U.S. outlining U.S. participation in the upgrade of the LHC and CERN participation in neutrino projects at Fermilab in the U.S.

There are also emerging players in the field, notably China, whose scientific community has expressed ambitious goals for a potential future facility. All this represents a great opportunity for particle physics. The challenge for all of us in the field is to advance in a globally coordinated manner, so as to be able to carry out as many exciting and complementary projects as possible. 

Were you always interested in being a scientist? If you couldn't be a scientist, what would you be/do?

I was always interested in science, and I was always interested in music. I pursued both for as long as I could, but when the time came to make a choice, I chose science. I suppose that as a professional physicist, it is still possible to enjoy music -- I still play the piano from time to time. But as a professional musician, it would be harder to engage in science.

What do you do in your spare time?

I spend my little spare time with family and friends. I do some sport, I listen to music, I read.

What do you think is the biggest misconception nonscientists have about particle physics?

That it's hard to understand! Of course, if you want to be a particle physicist, you have to master the language of mathematics and be trained to quite a high level. But if you want to understand the field conceptually, it's almost child's play. All children are natural scientists. They are curious, and they want to take things apart to see how they work.

Particle physics is just like that. We study the fundamental building blocks of matter from which everything is made, and the forces at work between them. And the equations that describe the building blocks and their interactions are simple and elegant. They can be written on a small piece of paper.