New CERN boss hailed as 'millennium physicist'

GENEVA -- Fabiola Gianotti, who this week takes the helm at CERN -- home to world's largest particle accelerator, is seen as a new breed of scientist.

See Full Article

Initially trained in arts and literature, she came to physics relatively late. She enjoys cooking, jogging, music and keeping her eye on the news, and notes the importance of being "a citizen of the world."

Gianotti "embodies for me what's much more the millennium physicist," said Dr. Monica Dunford, senior scientist at Germany's University of Heidelberg, who spent six years at CERN, the European Center for Nuclear Research. "Not so geeky, much more well-rounded, diverse, passionate."

"Fabiola brings freshness to science: She's incredibly energetic, incredibly passionate, has a lot of different talents. ... She has a degree in piano in addition to physics," Dunford said.

Gianotti, who succeeds Germany's Rolf Heuer as director-general on Jan. 1, becoming the first woman to hold the post, insists she doesn't want to be "front stage" at the multinational laboratory on the Swiss-French border: Her bigger focus is about helping produce science for science's sake in the quest to explain the how the universe works.

The 55-year-old Italian stands out not just for her fashion sense in a sneakers-and-jeans culture of coffee-fueled collaboration, sleepless nights and absent-mindedness about proper eating. In an interview held in a CERN conference room because her office was a "mess" during her move, Gianotti mused about an innovative, democratic community where Nobel laureates lunch with 25-year-old Ph.D. students.

"CERN is a special place where we do fund research by bringing together experts from over the planet -- great scientists -- but also a huge amount of young people," she said. It's "a democratic environment in that there are no barriers."

The centre's particle accelerator smashes together atoms and monitors the results to help understand the universe on the most infinitesimal scale. The Large Hadron Collider sends protons whizzing through a circular, 27-kilometre (17-mile) underground tunnel at nearly the speed of light. The $10-billion LHC, said to be the biggest machine ever built, is best known for its experiments that provided evidence in 2012 of the Higgs boson, a minute particle some have called the "God Particle" for its key position in the standard model of physics.

At that time, Gianotti headed Atlas, a team of 3,000 scientists and one of two independent teams that turned up the Higgs. That year, she was a runner-up to President Barack Obama as Time's Person of the Year. But achieving an encore to the headline-grabbing event like the Higgs discovery will be no small feat.

The collider has just completed "Run II" -- its second-ever cycle of operations -- and will take a traditional winter break until resuming in March.

Created in 1954, CERN has become a think-tank where grey matter meets matter, and most recently, is focusing on a quest to explain dark matter -- the unexplained mass that makes up 25 per cent of the universe but sits outside the standard model.

Run by scientists and all but unconstrained by economic demands, CERN has become a broad incubator of ideas. It was here that Britain's Tim Berners-Lee came up with the World Wide Web as a tool for scientists to communicate globally through the Internet. Spinoff science and applications are constantly being churned out.

Gianotti, one of the world's great physicists, also has skills in crisis management -- such as during trouble with one of the proton beams in 2009 that caused disgruntlement from funding agencies, collaboration teams and equipment makers, Dr. Dunford said.

"She showed the whole of CERN that she could really handle that kind of pressure," said Dunford. "It doesn't really get worse than that."

While Swiss and French police have stepped up border controls amid new counterterrorism measures that at times snarls traffic at CERN's entrance, inside it remains a haven of collaboration above mundane matters, she said.

"It reinforces the importance of places like CERN to foster peace, collaboration and showing that people from all over the world can work together regardless of their ethnicity, religion, tradition, language, colour of their skin, age, etc." she said.

She had upbeat words for an accord reached this fall with America's Fermilab, an upcoming decade-long CERN project to soup up the luminosity of Large Hadron Collider that will allow for creation of 15 million Higgs bosons a year, and China's plans to build its own, much bigger collider.

"It's a great thing because particle physics is becoming more and more global," Gianotti said. "The outstanding questions in particle physics are so important, but also so complex, that just one instrument is not enough to address them all."

Gianotti said she doesn't feel she faced additional hurdles ascending the ranks at the world's largest particle accelerator. But she acknowledges that that's not the case for all women.

"In general I think the mentality is changing and people are more and more recognizing that what they are looking for is excellence in science, in managerial skill, etc.," Gianotti said.

"I didn't feel I was treated a different way because I was a woman," she said, noting that one in five collaborators in the Atlas project were women. "But I also have to tell that some of my colleagues had a more difficult life. ... Some others suffered a bit and had to face some hurdles and some difficulties."

Gianotti acknowledges there could be surprises ahead, but hopes they are scientific, not managerial.

"I am very much honoured by the role, not so much because I am a woman, but because I am a scientist, and having the honour and the privilege of leading perhaps the most important laboratory in the world in our field is a big challenge," she said. "I will do my best."



Advertisements

Latest Tech & Science News

  • Bill Gates talks big mysteries, 'SNL' and disguises in Reddit AMA

    Tech & Science CTV News
    Microsoft founder and billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates joined Reddit users for an "Ask Me Anything" session on Monday, in which he spoke about social isolation, philanthropy, "Saturday Night Live" and the scientific question that puzzles him the most. Source
  • Fly me to the moon: SpaceX taking 2 'private citizens' into lunar orbit

    Tech & Science CTV News
    Money can take you far in this world, and, apparently, even farther off it. Two private citizens will join a crew of SpaceX astronauts on the first-ever mission to orbit the moon in decades, the space flight company announced Monday. Source
  • Study finds odd link between warm climate, slow snowmelt

    Tech & Science CTV News
    DENVER - Researchers say global warming could melt mountain snow more slowly, a peculiar finding that might be bad news for the American West. Scientists have long known snow is starting to melt sooner as the climate warms. Source
  • SpaceX to fly 2 people around the moon by next year

    Tech & Science CBC News
    SpaceX says it will fly two people to orbit the moon next year. The surprising announcement was made by company chief Elon Musk on Monday. Two people who know one another approached the company about sending them on a weeklong flight around the moon — though no landing would be made. Source
  • Solar eclipse darkens skies across Southern Hemisphere

    Tech & Science CBC News
    People in the Southern Hemisphere were treated to a solar eclipse on Sunday. The annular eclipse, sometimes referred to as a "ring of fire," was only seen in parts of Chile and Argentina as well as Angola. Source
  • Watch live: Giraffe prepares to give birth to calf

    Tech & Science CTV News
    As a 15-year-old giraffe named April prepares to give birth at a New York zoo any day now, anyone interested in watching the moment online will be able to stream it on the zoo’s YouTube page as well as CTVNews.ca. Source
  • WHO's 'priority pathogens' list highlights urgent need for new drugs

    Tech & Science CBC News
    The World Health Organization has released its first list of the world's most dangerous superbugs — 12 families of bacterial supervillains considered the most serious threats to human health. The WHO calls it a list of "priority pathogens" because the bacteria have developed resistance to key antibiotic drugs. Source
  • Samsung delays its new phone, showcases tablets instead

    Tech & Science CTV News
    NEW YORK -- Samsung's product showcase Sunday is notable for what's missing: a new flagship phone. Instead, Samsung is spotlighting new Android and Windows tablets after delaying the Galaxy S8 smartphone - an indirect casualty of the unprecedented September recall of the fire-prone Note 7 phone . Source
  • Nokia relaunches iconic 3310 mobile model

    Tech & Science CTV News
    Finnish brand Nokia, a former mobile star, on Sunday launched three new Android smartphones and unveiled a revamped version of its iconic 3310 model more than a decade after it was phased out. Unlike the original, which was known for its sturdiness, the new Nokia 3310 will allow web browsing. Source
  • ZTE launches world's first 5G-ready smartphone

    Tech & Science CTV News
    Chinese telecoms giant ZTE unveiled Sunday what it said is the world's first smartphone compatible with the lightening-fast 5G mobile internet service that networks expect to have up and running by 2020. The company said the Gigabit Phone is the first smartphone capable of download speeds reaching up to 1 gigabit per second (Gbps) -- up to 10 times faster than the first generation of 4G services widely in use today. Source