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CERN's Fabiola Gianotti: The woman hunting the Higgs boson

CERN experimental physicist Fabiola Gianotti in the ATLAS detector, 14 April, 2007.
CERN experimental physicist Fabiola Gianotti in the ATLAS detector, 14 April, 2007.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • 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 in the lead-up to an announcement about the detector's preliminary 2012 results.

Speaking from the International Conference for High Energy Physics in Melbourne, Australia, Gianotti revealed that CERN teams have observed a new particle they believe to be the Higgs Boson.

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The particle was found in a mass region where the scientists had expected it to be -- leading Gianotti to add, "Thanks, Nature!" -- and enough data has been obtained for scientists to reach a threshold of proof known as five sigma, meaning the chance that they have observed a random fluctuation is around one in 3.5 million.

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Heralding "the era of "Higgs" measurements," Gianotti said, "This is just the beginning. A little more time is needed to finalize these results, and more data and more study will be needed to determine the new particle's properties."

The existence of the Higgs boson is expected to confirm currently accepted theories about the structure of the universe.

"I couldn't tell you which (outcome) I would prefer," Gianotti said, ahead of the announcement. "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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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.

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.

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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