Categories
Scicomm

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

Categories
Science

After the Higgs-boson-like particle, what's next?

This article, as written by me, appeared in print in The Hindu on July 5, 2012.

The ATLAS (A Toroidal LHC Apparatus) collaboration at CERN has announced the sighting of a Higgs boson-like particle in the energy window of 125.3 ± 0.6 GeV. The observation has been made with a statistical significance of 5 sigma. This means the chances of error in their measurements are 1 in 3.5 million, sufficient to claim a discovery and publish papers detailing the efforts in the hunt.

Rolf-Dieter Heuer, Director General of CERN since 2009, said at the special conference called by CERN in Geneva, “It was a global effort, it is a global effort. It is a global success.” He expressed great optimism and concluded the conference saying this was “only the beginning.”

With this result, collaborations at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the atom-smashing machine, have vastly improved on their previous announcement on December 13, 2011, where the chance of an error was 1-in-50 for similar sightings.

A screenshot from the Dec 13, 2011, presentation by Fabiola Gianotti, leader of the ATLAS collaboration, that shows a global statistical significance of 2.3 sigma, which translates to a 1-in-50 chance of the result being erroneous.

Another collaboration, called CMS (Compact Muon Solenoid), announced the mass of the Higgs-like particle with a 4.9 sigma result. While insufficient to claim a discovery, it does indicate only a one-in-two-million chance of error.

Joe Incandela, CMS spokesman, added, “We’re reaching into the fabric of the universe at a level we’ve never done before.”

The LHC will continue to run its experiments so that results revealed on Wednesday can be revalidated before it shuts down at the end of the year for maintenance. Even so, by 2013, scientists, such as Dr. Rahul Sinha, a participant of the Belle Collaboration in Japan, are confident that a conclusive result will be out.

“The LHC has the highest beam energy in the world now. The experiment was designed to yield quick results. With its high luminosity, it quickly narrowed down the energy-ranges. I’m sure that by the end of the year, we will have a definite word on the Higgs boson’s properties,” he said.

However, even though the Standard Model, the framework of all fundamental particles and the dominating explanatory model in physics today, predicted the particle’s existence, slight deviations have been observed in terms of the particle’s predicted mass. Even more: zeroing in on the mass of the Higgs-like particle doesn’t mean the model is complete when, in fact, it is far from.

While an answer to the question of mass formation took 50 years to be reached, physicists are yet to understand many phenomena. For instance, why aren’t the four fundamental forces of nature equally strong?

The weak, nuclear, electromagnetic, and gravitational forces were born in the first few moments succeeding the Big Bang 13.75 billion years ago. Of these, the weak force is, for some reason, almost 1 billion, trillion, trillion times stronger than the gravitational force! Called the hierarchy problem, it evades a Standard Model explanation.

In response, many theories were proposed. One, called supersymmetry (SUSY), proposed that all fermions, which are particles with half-integer spin, were paired with a corresponding boson, or particles with integer spin. Particle spin is the term quantum mechanics attributes to the particle’s rotation around an axis.

Technicolor was the second framework. It rejects the Higgs mechanism, a process through which the Higgs boson couples stronger with some particles and weaker with others, making them heavier and lighter, respectively.

Instead, it proposes a new form of interaction with initially-massless fermions. The short-lived particles required to certify this framework are accessible at the LHC. Now, with a Higgs-like particle having been spotted with a significant confidence level, the future of Technicolor seems uncertain.

However, “significant constraints” have been imposed on the validity of these and such theories, labeled New Physics, according to Prof. M.V.N. Murthy of the Institute of Mathematical Sciences (IMS), whose current research focuses on high-energy physics.

Some other important questions include why there is more matter than antimatter in this universe, why fundamental particles manifest in three generations and not more or fewer, and the masses of the weakly-interacting neutrinos. State-of-the-art technology worldwide has helped physicists design experiments to study each of these problems better.

For example, the India-based Neutrino Observatory (INO), under construction in Theni, will house the world’s largest static particle detector to study atmospheric neutrinos. Equipped with its giant iron-calorimeter (ICAL) detector, physicists aim to discover which neutrinos are heavier and which lighter.

The LHC currently operates at the Energy Frontier, with high-energy being the defining constraint on experiments. Two other frontiers, Intensity and Cosmic, are also seeing progress. Project X, a proposed proton accelerator at Fermilab in Chicago, Illinois, will push the boundaries of the Intensity Frontier by trying to look for ultra-rare process. On the Cosmic Frontier, dark matter holds the greatest focus.

Categories
Science

After the Higgs-boson-like particle, what’s next?

This article, as written by me, appeared in print in The Hindu on July 5, 2012.

The ATLAS (A Toroidal LHC Apparatus) collaboration at CERN has announced the sighting of a Higgs boson-like particle in the energy window of 125.3 ± 0.6 GeV. The observation has been made with a statistical significance of 5 sigma. This means the chances of error in their measurements are 1 in 3.5 million, sufficient to claim a discovery and publish papers detailing the efforts in the hunt.

Rolf-Dieter Heuer, Director General of CERN since 2009, said at the special conference called by CERN in Geneva, “It was a global effort, it is a global effort. It is a global success.” He expressed great optimism and concluded the conference saying this was “only the beginning.”

With this result, collaborations at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the atom-smashing machine, have vastly improved on their previous announcement on December 13, 2011, where the chance of an error was 1-in-50 for similar sightings.

A screenshot from the Dec 13, 2011, presentation by Fabiola Gianotti, leader of the ATLAS collaboration, that shows a global statistical significance of 2.3 sigma, which translates to a 1-in-50 chance of the result being erroneous.

Another collaboration, called CMS (Compact Muon Solenoid), announced the mass of the Higgs-like particle with a 4.9 sigma result. While insufficient to claim a discovery, it does indicate only a one-in-two-million chance of error.

Joe Incandela, CMS spokesman, added, “We’re reaching into the fabric of the universe at a level we’ve never done before.”

The LHC will continue to run its experiments so that results revealed on Wednesday can be revalidated before it shuts down at the end of the year for maintenance. Even so, by 2013, scientists, such as Dr. Rahul Sinha, a participant of the Belle Collaboration in Japan, are confident that a conclusive result will be out.

“The LHC has the highest beam energy in the world now. The experiment was designed to yield quick results. With its high luminosity, it quickly narrowed down the energy-ranges. I’m sure that by the end of the year, we will have a definite word on the Higgs boson’s properties,” he said.

However, even though the Standard Model, the framework of all fundamental particles and the dominating explanatory model in physics today, predicted the particle’s existence, slight deviations have been observed in terms of the particle’s predicted mass. Even more: zeroing in on the mass of the Higgs-like particle doesn’t mean the model is complete when, in fact, it is far from.

While an answer to the question of mass formation took 50 years to be reached, physicists are yet to understand many phenomena. For instance, why aren’t the four fundamental forces of nature equally strong?

The weak, nuclear, electromagnetic, and gravitational forces were born in the first few moments succeeding the Big Bang 13.75 billion years ago. Of these, the weak force is, for some reason, almost 1 billion, trillion, trillion times stronger than the gravitational force! Called the hierarchy problem, it evades a Standard Model explanation.

In response, many theories were proposed. One, called supersymmetry (SUSY), proposed that all fermions, which are particles with half-integer spin, were paired with a corresponding boson, or particles with integer spin. Particle spin is the term quantum mechanics attributes to the particle’s rotation around an axis.

Technicolor was the second framework. It rejects the Higgs mechanism, a process through which the Higgs boson couples stronger with some particles and weaker with others, making them heavier and lighter, respectively.

Instead, it proposes a new form of interaction with initially-massless fermions. The short-lived particles required to certify this framework are accessible at the LHC. Now, with a Higgs-like particle having been spotted with a significant confidence level, the future of Technicolor seems uncertain.

However, “significant constraints” have been imposed on the validity of these and such theories, labeled New Physics, according to Prof. M.V.N. Murthy of the Institute of Mathematical Sciences (IMS), whose current research focuses on high-energy physics.

Some other important questions include why there is more matter than antimatter in this universe, why fundamental particles manifest in three generations and not more or fewer, and the masses of the weakly-interacting neutrinos. State-of-the-art technology worldwide has helped physicists design experiments to study each of these problems better.

For example, the India-based Neutrino Observatory (INO), under construction in Theni, will house the world’s largest static particle detector to study atmospheric neutrinos. Equipped with its giant iron-calorimeter (ICAL) detector, physicists aim to discover which neutrinos are heavier and which lighter.

The LHC currently operates at the Energy Frontier, with high-energy being the defining constraint on experiments. Two other frontiers, Intensity and Cosmic, are also seeing progress. Project X, a proposed proton accelerator at Fermilab in Chicago, Illinois, will push the boundaries of the Intensity Frontier by trying to look for ultra-rare process. On the Cosmic Frontier, dark matter holds the greatest focus.

Categories
Op-eds Science

Hunt for the Higgs boson: A quick update

And it was good news after all! In an announcement made earlier today at the special conference called by CERN near Geneva, the discovery of a Higgs-boson-like particle was announced by physicists from the ATLAS and CMS collaborations that spearheaded the hunt. I say discovery because the ATLAS team spotted an excess of events near the 125-GeV mark with a statistical significance of 5 sigma. This puts the chances of the observation being a random fluctuation at 1 in 3.5 million, a precision that asserts (almost) certainty.

Fabiola Gianotti announced the preliminary results of the ATLAS detector, as she did in December, while Joe Incandela was her CMS counterpart. The CMS results showed an excess of events around 125 GeV (give or take 0.6 GeV) at 4.9 sigma. While the chances of error in this case are 1 in 2 million, it can’t be claimed a discovery. Even so, physicists from both detectors will be presenting their efforts in the hunt as papers in the coming weeks. I’ll keep an eye out for their appearance on arXiv, and will post links to them.

After the beam energy in the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) was increased from 3.5 TeV/beam to 4 TeV/beam in March, only so many collisions could be conducted until July. As a result, the sample set available for detailed analysis was lower than could be considered sufficient. This is the reason some stress is placed on saying “boson-like” instead of attributing the observations to the boson itself. Before the end of the year, when the LHC will shut down for routine maintenance, however, scientists expect a definite word on the particle being the Higgs boson itself.

(While we’re on the subject: too many crass comments have been posted on the web claiming a religious element in the naming of the particle as the “God particle”. To those for whom this monicker makes sense: know that it doesn’t. When it was first suggested by a physicist, it stood as the “goddamn particle”, which a sensitive publisher corrected to the “God particle”).

The mass of the boson-like particle seems to deviate slightly from Standard Model (SM) predictions. This does not mean that SM stands invalidated. In point of fact, SM still holds strong because it has been incredibly successful in being able to predict the existence and properties of a host of other particles. One deviation cannot and will not bring it down. At the same time, it’s far from complete, too. What the spotting of a Higgs-boson-like particle in said energy window has done is assure physicists and others worldwide that the predicted mechanism of mass-generation is valid and within the SM ambit.

Last: the CERN announcement was fixed for today not without another reason. The International Conference on High Energy Physics (ICHEP) is scheduled to commence tomorrow in Melbourne. One can definitely expect discussions on the subject of the Higgs mechanism to be held there. Further, other topics also await to be dissected and their futures laid out – in terms vague or concrete. So, the excitement in the scientific community is set to continue until July 11, when ICHEP is scheduled to close.

Be sure to stay updated. These are exciting times!