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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.

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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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