Fabiola Gianotti, the first woman Director-General of CERN

The CERN Council has elected a new Director-General to succeed the incumbent Rolf-Dieter Heuer. 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 said the “Council converged rapidly in favor of Dr. Gianotti”, implying 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, is set to restart in January 2015 after a series of upgrades to increase its energy and luminosity. And so Dr. 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, the strong force’s strength and dark matter.

Dr. Gianotti will succeed 15 men who, as Director Generals, have been responsible for not simply coordinating the scientific efforts stemming from CERN but also 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.

In fact, the title of ‘spokesperson’, which Dr. 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 measurements 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 Dr. Gianotti’s affable leadership – were instrumental in getting that far, and in getting Peter Higgs and Francois Englert their 2013 Nobel Prize in physics.

Earlier this year, 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 attenuation1 of productivity or will must have indeed been so.

That she will be the first woman to become the DG 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 recognized as a prevalent issue. Dr. 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 the W/Z bosons had just been discovered at the facility’s UA1 and UA2 collaborations. Dr. 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. Dr. 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 (‘new physics’) particles 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.2

Her success in leading the ATLAS collaboration, and becoming the veritable face of the hunt for the Higgs boson, have catapulted her to being the next DG of CERN. At the same time, it must feel reassuring3 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”4, Fabiola Gianotti’s research excellence, administrative astuteness and creative intuition is now there to guide them.

Good luck, Dr. Gianotti!


1Recommended read: Who really found the Higgs boson? The real genius in the Nobel Prize-winning discovery is not who you think it is. Nautilus, Issue 18.

2I must mention that it’s weird that someone which 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 was probably the beginning of Comic Sans’s comeback.

3Though I am no physicist.

4In the words of Academy Award-winning film editor Walter S. Murch.

Featured image credit: Claudia Marcelloni/CERN

1 Comment