Runner-Up: Fabiola Gianotti, the Discoverer

Finding the tiny Higgs Boson took the biggest machine in the arsenal of physics — and help from one woman obsessed with the nature of reality

  • Share
  • Read Later
Levon Biss for TIME

Ten days is an awfully long time to have a toothache — especially with the kind of week Fabiola Gianotti had ahead of her. It was December 2011, and the annual seminar at the European Organization for Nuclear Research — better known as CERN — was imminent. Gianotti, one of CERN’s head scientists, was preparing to present preliminary findings on the hunt for the Higgs boson, the elusive particle that physicists had been seeking for the better part of half a century. Gianotti and the thousands of other scientists who work at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) were getting very close to bagging the thing, and she was eager to share what she knew. But there was the matter of that toothache.

So she took a drugstore painkiller, then started taking two when one didn’t work, then went to three. Finally she woke up the night before the seminar with a raging fever and chills and had to be rushed to the hospital for emergency dental surgery. When she was done, the doctor told her she had to stay home. “I said, ‘O.K., I can stay home — for 20 minutes,’” she says. That was the time she needed to race back to her house, take a shower and get to CERN.

(VIDEO: The Higgs Boson, Particle of the Year)

It was an admirable case of a leader soldiering on in the face of pain, but Gianotti’s reputation was already legendary. Her native smarts and intuitive people skills had earned her a spot managing a team of 3,000 at the greatest research facility physicists have ever built. And all that was before this summer, when she and her CERN colleagues announced that, yes, they had well and truly captured the Higgs. In doing so, they had nailed the particle that gives other fundamental particles their mass. That in turn completed the so-called standard model of physics, the grand framework that ties together the universe’s three great forces — the strong force, the weak force and electromagnetism — and governs the behavior of subatomic particles. Look around at the familiar universe of planets and suns and moons and people. What happened at CERN helps explain why they exist as they do.

Cover Photograph by Levon Biss for TIME

The announcement caused the kind of global sensation you don’t always see in response to a scientific discovery, and three names earned an equally unusual level of fame — Gianotti, who headed one of the experiments that confirmed the Higgs; her colleague Joe Incandela, who led the other; and Rolf Heuer, the research director of CERN. It was Gianotti who perhaps received the most attention, principally for her leadership role and her manifest gifts but occasionally for a reason as predictable as it is misguided: her gender. Physics is a male-dominated field, and the assumption is that a woman has to overcome hurdles and face down biases that men don’t.

But that just isn’t so. Women in physics are familiar with this misconception and acknowledge it mostly with jokes. Of course there are many women in leadership positions at CERN, said one physicist. Why do you think the experiments have been so successful? If you want to know the real reason Gianotti, 51, deserves the attention she’s gotten lately, you need to get to know her better.

Gianotti’s background is different from that of the ordinary particle experimenter — if there is such a thing. Her mother studied literature and music; her father is a retired geologist. When she began her high school studies in Milan, she seemed to be taking after her mother, focusing on literature, art history, philosophy and ancient Latin and Greek. Math and physics were part of her curriculum but way at the bottom. Her interest in philosophy and the big questions it raises, however, actually led her away from the humanities. “I thought that physics, the little bit I knew of it, would allow me to address those questions in a more practical way,” she says. “I mean, being able to give answers.”

(Interactive Panorama: Step Inside the Large Hadron Collider)

It’s not likely that the answers she had in mind back then concerned what gives particles their mass, but she eventually chose that field because she was attracted to its fundamental nature. She decided to be an experimenter, working with the complex hardware of physics, for equally primal reasons. “I like manual things,” she says, “doing things with my hands, the feeling of touching.” What’s more, she was involved in her university studies in the early 1980s, when the W and Z gauge bosons — which mediate the weak force — had just been discovered at CERN, so she knew this was a field on the move.

The LHC, where Gianotti now works and the Higgs discovery was made, straddles the French-Swiss border and is the foremost collider in the world, with a 16.7-mile (27 km) circumference. The machine and its accomplishments are the result of a quarter-century of effort by a worldwide community of scientists. All that effort and hardware is devoted principally to accelerating protons to near the speed of light, then crashing them together at enormously high energies. In the subatomic debris that results from these collisions, the Higgs and other secrets of the universe might be found.

Here’s why the Higgs in particular is so important: a particle doesn’t necessarily have to have mass; the photon, the basic quantum of light, doesn’t. If no particles had mass, however, the universe, along with everything in it, would be a decidedly different (and decidedly less solid) place. “The Higgs particle has two functions,” says Gianotti. “One is to give mass; the other is to allow the standard model to behave properly up to the highest energies.”

(MORE: The Cathedral of Science: How the Higgs Was Found)

The Higgs theory — named for British physicist Peter Higgs, one of its leading developers — states that particles live in a field with which they interact. Those interactions give particles their mass, basically by attracting Higgs bosons to them. The more they attract, the greater their mass.

The team Gianotti leads at the LHC does its work with an instrument known as the ATLAS detector, which is 151 ft. (46 m) long and 82 ft. (25 m) high and is equipped with a massive magnet system that allows the paths of charged particles to be bent so they can be measured. Gianotti’s work involves running the experiment at all levels — defining the overall scientific strategy, supervising the day-by-day progress of the experiment and the operation of the 7,000-ton machine and dealing with the unavoidable budgeting and human issues that come with overseeing so considerable a project.

That’s the big picture. The smaller picture is a more elegant one, and it’s where Gianotti’s artistic history shows. She made particularly important contributions to a piece of hardware known as the liquid-argon calorimeter, which detects electromagnetic energy. It has a beautiful geometry that allows it to respond in less than 50 billionths of a second, so energy from particles moving close to the speed of light can be detected.

It’s a quirk of CERN that team leaders like Gianotti — with their power over so many people and so much machinery — do not have titles like chief scientist or project director. They are simply called spokespeople, which says something about the deeply collaborative nature of the work and also helps explain why Gianotti takes more than the ordinary care to deflect and share credit for the Higgs triumph. “It’s not only a great scientific endeavor but a unique human adventure,” she says. “Working with so many people from all over the world is extremely enriching and stimulating.”

With the Higgs particle in hand, Gianotti and her team have a lot more questions to answer. Does the particle have the precise properties they expected, or does it differ ever so slightly? In the world of particle physics, that would have more than slight implications for how it operates. The discovery of the boson could also lead to insights into some of physics’ other great mysteries, like matter-antimatter asymmetry: essentially, why is there more of one — matter — when the two should be equal?

Gianotti is also dealing with the special burdens — and joys — that come with being a role model. She receives all manner of mail these days, often from high school students and, yes, often from girls, who are inspired by the way she has risen and thrived. But the story she likes to tell involves a young man, an undergraduate physics student in Italy who was ready to abandon his studies because he thought the future of the field was too grim. He stumbled across a magazine interview with her, hunted down her e-mail address and wrote her to say she had given him new hope, new resolve. “I called him and we had several chats, and I encouraged him strongly to continue,” Gianotti says. “I told him, ‘Never abandon your dreams. You may regret it for the rest of your life.’”

The young physicist took her advice, switched to particle physics and, as things would have it, wound up at CERN, in the LHC, working on the ATLAS experiment. He owes his boss — O.K., his spokesperson — more than a good day’s work. He owes her thanks for the wisdom that got him this far.

  1. Previous
  2. 1
  3. 2