Fabiola Gianotti Set to Become First Woman to Lead CERN

Fabiola Gianotti. Image: Claudia Marcelloni/CERN

Fabiola Gianotti. Image: Claudia Marcelloni/CERN

On November 4, 2014, the CERN Council elected a new Director-General to succeed the incumbent Rolf-Dieter Heuer, at the end of his term in 2015. Fabiola Gianotti, who served as the ATLAS collaboration’s spokesperson from 2009 to 2013, a period that included the discovery of the long-sought Higgs boson by the ATLAS and CMS experiments, will be the first woman to hold the position. Her mandate begins from January 2016.

A CERN press release announcing the appointment last year said the “Council converged rapidly in favour of Dr. Gianotti”, so it was a quick and unanimous decision.

The Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the mammoth particle smasher that produces the collisions that ATLAS, CMS and two other similar collaborations study, restarted in January 2015 after a series of upgrades to increase its energy and luminosity. And so Gianotti’s term will coincide with a distinct phase of science, this one eager for evidence to help answer deeper questions in particle physics – such as the Higgs boson’s mass, dark matter, and the hunt for a ‘new physics’.

Gianotti will succeed 15 men who, as Director Generals, have been responsible for coordinating the scientific efforts stemming from CERN as well as guiding research priorities and practices. They have effectively set the various agendas that the world’s preeminent nuclear physics lab has chosen to pursue since its establishment in 1945.

The title of ‘spokesperson’, which Gianotti held for the ATLAS collaboration for four years until 2013, is itself deceptively uncomplicated. The spokesperson not only speaks for the collaboration but is also the effective project manager who plays an important role when decisions are made about what experiments to focus on and what questions to answer. When on July 4, 2012, the discovery of a Higgs-boson-like particle was announced, results from the ATLAS particle-detector, and therefore Gianotti’s leadership, were instrumental in getting that far, and in securing Peter Higgs and Francois Englert their 2013 Nobel Prize in physics.

Earlier in 2014, she had likened her job to “a great scientific adventure”, and but “also a great human adventure”, to CNN. To guide the aspirations and creativity of 3,000 engineers and physicists without attenuation of productivity or will must have indeed been so.

That she will be the first woman to become the Director-General of CERN can’t escape attention either, especially at a time when women’s participation in STEM research seems to be on the decline and sexism in science is being recognised as a prevalent issue. Gianotti will no doubt make a strong role model for a field that is only 25% women. There will also be much to learn from her past, from the time she chose to become a physicist after learning about Albert Einstein’s idea of quantum mechanics to explain the photoelectric effect. She joined CERN while working toward her PhD from the University of Milan. She was 25, it was 1987 and two fundamental particles had just been discovered at the facility’s UA1 and UA2 experiments. Gianotti would join the latter.

It was an exciting time to be a physicist as well as exacting. Planning for the LHC would begin in that decade and launch one of the world’s largest scientific collaborations with it. The success of a scientist would start to demand not just research excellence but also a flair for public relations, bureaucratic diplomacy and the acuity necessary to manage public funds in the billions from different countries. Gianotti would go on to wear all these hats even as she started work in calorimetry at the LHC in 1990, on the ATLAS detector in 1992, and on the search for supersymmetric particles, part of a new-physics search, in 1996.

Her admiration for the humanities has been known to play its part in shaping her thoughts about the universe at its most granular. She has a professional music diploma from the Milan Conservatory and often unwinds at the end of a long day with a session on the piano. Her fifth-floor home in Geneva sometimes affords her a view of Mont Blanc and she often enjoys long walks in the mountains. In the same interview, given to Financial Times in 2013, she adds,

There are many links between physics and art. For me, physics and nature have very nice foundations from an aesthetic point of view, and at the same time art is based on physics and mathematical principle. If you build a nice building, you have to build it with some criteria because otherwise it collapses.

(Aside: it’s funny that someone with such strong aesthetic foundations used Comic Sans MS as the font of choice for her presentation at the CERN seminar in 2012 that announced the discovery of a Higgs-like-boson. It’s perhaps fitting that it later became a Fool’s Day joke.)

Anyway, her success in leading the ATLAS collaboration, and becoming one of the faces of the hunt for the Higgs boson (alongside Guido Tonelli of the CMS team), have catapulted her to being the next DG of CERN. At the same time, it must feel reassuring that as physicists embark on a new era of research that requires just as much ingenuity in formulating new ideas as in testing them, an era “where logic based on past theories does not guide us”, Fabiola Gianotti’s research excellence, administrative astuteness and creative intuition is now there to guide them. Good luck, ma’am!

This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared on Vasudevan Mukunth’s blog.