Italians who have impacted the world bring to mind either Renaissance masters, ancient statesmen or contemporary entertainers and designers, like Roberto Benigni, Sofia Loren, Giorgio Armani, or Guccio Gucci. We don’t, however, often think of physicists. This changed after December 19, 2012, when Milanese physicist Fabiola Gianotti was named runnerup for Time magazine’s Person of the Year.
Why is this significant? For starters, Gianotti is a woman in a competitive, male-dominated field. She is not merely involved in modern physics, but instead dominates the field as one of the head scientists at CERN (European Center for Nuclear Research.) She is the spokesperson and coordinator for ATLA S and the Large Hadron Collider, which is the largest particle detector ever built at 27 kilometers in length. She was given this position after being elected by 3000 of her peers, hailing from 38 different countries. Gianotti has been instrumental in finding what is believed to be the Higgs Boson, or “God particle,” that scientists have been pursuing for almost a century. Her everyday work is said to be “the world’s largest science experiment.” In a nutshell, Fabiola Gianotti is extraordinary.
Gianotti was born in 1962 and received her PhD in subnuclear physics from the University of Milan. Physics was not always her passion – in fact, while she was growing up, it wasn’t even something she considered. In high school she chose a track that focused on literature, art history, philosophy and ancient Latin and Greek. It was her passion for philosophy that led her directly to physics. “I had this curiosity that pushed me towards the fundamental questions,” she told CNN in July of 2012. “Philosophy is a discipline that at least asks the fundamental questions, but physics also tries, and often can give an answer. Perhaps not the final answer, perhaps just a little step forward, but I liked it immediately.” Maybe this is what makes Gianotti so special – the way she sees physics as a form of art, claiming that the two things really are closer than everyone thinks. “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.”
This fresh approach to science, coupled with the absolutely awe-inspiring rise and evolution of technology, has led to an amount of success and discovery that could not have even been dreamed of twenty years ago. Most notably, CERN scientists believe that the Large Hadron Collider has found the Higgs Boson. If this is true, it will irreversibly change not only the field of physics, but also the way we understand the nature of the universe. Scientists have been seeking the Higgs Boson for almost 100 years, hoping that it would prove the theory that particles acquire their masses from an invisible field that stretches through all of space, called the Higgs Field. Without something to give particles mass, there would be no stars, no planets, and no life as we know it, and the Higgs Boson is the closest scientists have come to predicting what this mass may be. This discovery would not only solve the question of mass, but would also provide definitive insight into the nature of the universe, and potentially even the fate of the Earth and other planets. It has been nicknamed the “God particle” (much to the chagrin of many scientists) because it has the potential to answer most of the questions scientists still have about the universe by showing them the cosmic glue that holds it together.
At risk of sounding trite, it is easy to see how this discovery will be life-changing. If the Higgs Boson is not what they think it is, the scientists at CERN will start over, forming a new theory from scratch. However, if it is everything it has the potential to be, the path of science and the way not only physicists, but all human beings, see the universe will be absolutely revolutionized.
Of course Gianotti is ecstatic to solve this mystery, but something truly endearing about her is that she does not consider the Higgs Boson and ATLA S the only appealing part of her job. To her, what the other colliders do is equally fascinating and equally important. Today, 17,000 of the world’s 30,000 particle accelerators are used for medical purposes, such as cancer research. She says that the human part of science, the “human adventure” aspect, is what really drives her passion, and as long as Fabiola Gianotti is at CERN, who knows what leaps and bounds science and humankind will make. It’s easy to see how much it already has.