Talking With Fabiola Gianotti, The New Queen Of Physics

Especially since the breakthrough on the Higgs Boson particle, running CERN in Geneva may be the most influential job in physics. For the first time it will be filled by a woman.

Fabiola Gianotti, new director general of CERN, starting Jan. 1, 2016
Fabiola Gianotti, new director general of CERN, starting Jan. 1, 2016
Barbara Gallavotti

GENEVA — With a speed that surprised everyone, the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) decided to elect as its new director general Fabiola Gianotti, an iconic researcher in the world of physics and science. The final discussion lasted barely 15 minutes, after which Gianotti — known for her wit — sent a text message, "Is it already done?"

Still, the Italian getting the nod was anything but a foregone conclusion. Until this summer, many would have bet on an English director, but as often happens with certainties, it wasn't to be. In fact, back in August, CERN's board announced the three most suitable candidates for the role: Dutchman Frank Linde, Brit Terry Wyatt, and surprisingly, Fabiola Gianotti.

Gianotti, a particle physicist, gained worldwide attention for her leading role in discovering the Higgs boson in 2012, and she was the spokesperson for the ATLAS experiment at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). Her term as director general will begin Jan. 1, 2016.

LA STAMPA: Professor, when you announced the discovery of the Higgs particle, you said that you could hardly imagine feeling a comparable emotion again in your life. Has this announcement changed this?
FABIOLA GIANOTTI: A discovery by a scientist is a unique experience. Today is certainly different, but it's still very special.

Which aspect of your vision for the future of CERN do you think convinced the board?
My efforts are focused on ensuring that CERN maintains a leading role in the fields of science, technology and education, and that it continues to be a place that unites scientists from around the world. From a scientific point of view, our mission is to seek answers to the fundamental questions about the universe. Many are open — we don't know about dark matter, which accounts for a quarter of the universe's matter, nor do we know why there's antimatter.

The discovery of the Higgs boson was a triumphant moment for physicists. Can CERN maintain the leading role it has played in recent years?
It has been both a point of arrival as well as a point of departure because every advance opens up new perspectives. We have just begun to tap the potential of the powerful tools available to CERN, like the Large Hadron Collider. Of course, the results that we get largely depend on nature. But we will not stop working on the tools in order to improve them. Motivating us is the fact that we develop other applications in other fields, like medicine, for example.

Tunnel of the Large Hadron Collider — Photo: Julian Herzog

CERN began as a European laboratory but welcomes researchers from around the world. Will it become more global?
Without a doubt, and for various reasons. Our research is so complex that the resources of a single region of the world are no longer enough — both intellectually and economically, it must be a global effort. Moreover, what has always made CERN special and one of the reasons for its success is that it's a place where those who love knowledge can feel at home.

You will be the first female director and one of few women to hold such a high position in physics. Did the choice surprise you?
In a way I find it natural that this has happened at CERN. Our laboratory is a place that celebrates diversity and is totally open to all differences, not just sex but also age, ethnicity, religion and other traditions. The current president of the board is Polish scientist Angieszka Zalewska.

Are you worried about the challenges awaiting you?
I have a lot to learn, but a lot of new energy too.

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In Argentina, A Visit To World's Highest Solar Energy Park

With loans and solar panels from China, the massive solar park has been opened a year and is already powering the surrounding areas. Now the Chinese supplier is pushing for an expansion.

960,000 solar panels have been installed at the Cauchari park

Silvia Naishtat

CAUCHARI — Driving across the border with Chile into the northwest Argentine department of Susques, you may spot what looks like a black mass in the distance. Arriving at a 4,000-meter altitude in the municipality of Cauchari, what comes into view instead is an assembly of 960,000 solar panels. It is the world's highest photovoltaic (PV) park, which is also the second biggest solar energy facility in Latin America, after Mexico's Aguascalientes plant.

Spread over 800 hectares in an arid landscape, the Cauchari park has been operating for a year, and has so far turned sunshine into 315 megawatts of electricity, enough to power the local provincial capital of Jujuy through the national grid.

It has also generated some $50 million for the province, which Governor Gerardo Morales has allocated to building 239 schools.

Abundant sunshine, low temperatures

The physicist Martín Albornoz says Cauchari, which means "link to the sun," is exposed to the best solar radiation anywhere. The area has 260 days of sunshine, with no smog and relatively low temperatures, which helps keep the panels in optimal conditions.

Its construction began with a loan of more than $331 million from China's Eximbank, which allowed the purchase of panels made in Shanghai. They arrived in Buenos Aires in 2,500 containers and were later trucked a considerable distance to the site in Cauchari . This was a titanic project that required 1,200 builders and 10-ton cranes, but will save some 780,000 tons of CO2 emissions a year.

It is now run by 60 technicians. Its panels, with a 25-year guarantee, follow the sun's path and are cleaned twice a year. The plant is expected to have a service life of 40 years. Its choice of location was based on power lines traced in the 1990s to export power to Chile, now fed by the park.

Chinese engineers working in an office at the Cauchari park


Chinese want to expand

The plant belongs to the public-sector firm Jemse (Jujuy Energía y Minería), created in 2011 by the province's then governor Eduardo Fellner. Jemse's president, Felipe Albornoz, says that once Chinese credits are repaid in 20 years, Cauchari will earn the province $600 million.

The Argentine Energy ministry must now decide on the park's proposed expansion. The Chinese would pay in $200 million, which will help install 400,000 additional panels and generate enough power for the entire province of Jujuy.

The park's CEO, Guillermo Hoerth, observes that state policies are key to turning Jujuy into a green province. "We must change the production model. The world is rapidly cutting fossil fuel emissions. This is a great opportunity," Hoerth says.

The province's energy chief, Mario Pizarro, says in turn that Susques and three other provincial districts are already self-sufficient with clean energy, and three other districts would soon follow.

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