‘Science is binding, because the laws of nature are the same everywhere on earth’

‘Science is binding, because the laws of nature are the same everywhere on earth’

When we get into the taxi at a quarter to nine in the morning, the Italian particle physicist Fabiola Gianotti already has a program ready. The director general of the European particle physics laboratory CERN in Geneva was awarded an honorary doctorate by Radboud University in Nijmegen the day before. After less than 24 hours in the Netherlands, she flies back to Geneva, but not before visiting the advanced laser lab Felix and magnetic lab HFML in Nijmegen at seven in the morning, having her photo taken and during the taxi ride from Nijmegen to Schiphol makes time for this interview.

Nevertheless, Gianotti is relaxed and cheerful. “I’m an early bird,” she says. “I enjoy that my work is dynamic and that I can visit impressive labs and learn something new every day.”

Nearly 17,000 scientists from more than 110 nationalities work at CERN. The Netherlands is one of 23 member states and is involved in several CERN experiments. Gianotti has been the first female Director General since 2016 and was the first to be re-elected for a second five-year term in 2021. From 2009 to 2013, she was spokesperson for Atlas, one of the advanced detector experiments at the LHC particle accelerator at CERN, where the Higgs boson was discovered in 2012. “That was a fantastic time. There were many young researchers involved and everyone worked hard, day and night.”

What does CERN mean to you?

“First and foremost, it is a fantastic scientific environment. For particle physicists, CERN is paradise. It’s one for me too school of life. I came to CERN as a young researcher and grew up in an environment that is inclusive and has good values ​​of collaboration and diversity. I think humanity needs places like this. CERN was founded to bring high-quality scientific research back to Europe after the ravages of war, and to promote peaceful cooperation between European countries through science. Science works like glue. It is universal and connecting. The laws of nature are the same everywhere on earth and the desire to understand how things work is inherent to humans, regardless of their background.”

As a woman you cannot afford a single mistake because it will be noticed immediately

You are committed to removing barriers for women at CERN. How do you do that?

“CERN has been committed to this for some time. Our goal is 25 percent women by 2025. Now it is 22 percent. My predecessor and I have set up various initiatives for this purpose. For example, we send female researchers and engineers to schools in the area so that students have female role models. We also set up infrastructure to help families, such as a daycare center for children from 4 months to 6 years. In addition, we monitor careers to ensure that men and women are promoted the same and paid the same for the same position. There are women on the selection committees and management is now 37 to 40 percent female. That’s good, because all those women are role models for the younger generation.”

Have you personally experienced discrimination as a woman in physics?

“I have never felt that I have been discriminated against. But I know that many of my female colleagues were not so lucky and sometimes did not have the same opportunities as male colleagues. I do notice that women are watched more closely, because there are much fewer of us. As a woman you cannot afford a single mistake because it will be noticed immediately. That is sometimes difficult, but I am happy that in this position I can help attract young women to science.”

There are many open questions and there is no single measuring instrument that can answer them all

With the discovery of the Higgs boson at the LHC, the standard model of particle physics, which describes elementary particles and their mutual forces, is complete. What is CERN looking for now?

“Our goal is not to search for predicted new particles, but to answer open questions. At the time of the discovery of the Higgs boson, the open question was: how do particles get their mass? We found the Higgs boson as a solution, as predicted by theorists. But nature could have chosen a different solution and we would have found something else.

“The open questions today are, for example: why does the universe consist of matter, while after the Big Bang there was probably as much matter as antimatter? And what is dark matter, which appears to make up 80 percent of the mass in our universe? We know that new particles or other new physics are needed to answer those questions, because the Standard Model cannot do that. Theoretical models are useful and guide our experimental research to some extent. But we look broader, because we don’t know which solutions nature has chosen.”

Since the Higgs boson, the LHC has not discovered any new elementary particles. Can the answers to the current open questions be found with a particle accelerator?

“There are many open questions and there is no single measuring instrument that can answer them all. That is why there are various methods, such as telescopes, underground experiments that search for dark matter and particle accelerators. We know that particle accelerators are essential, partly because they are the only way to produce and investigate Higgs particles. And we know that this particle played an important role in the early universe.”

Right now my horizons don’t extend beyond my plans later this afternoon

How will CERN contribute to this?

“CERN has the ambition to build a successor to the LHC in ten years. The preference is for the Future Circular Collider (FCC), a circular accelerator, like the LHC, with a circumference of about 90 kilometers instead of 27 kilometers. This must first become a Higgs factory, where electrons collide with positrons to produce large quantities of Higgs particles and study them in detail. The second stage is a proton-proton accelerator, to achieve the highest possible collision energies and search for new, heavy particles.

“We are currently conducting a feasibility study. Attention is also paid to the environmental impact and sustainability. In current experiments and planning future ones, CERN collaborates with non-member countries, such as the United States and Japan, which have their own research programs but are also involved in CERN projects.”

What will you do from 2026, when your directorship ends?

“I do not know yet. Right now my horizons don’t extend beyond my plans later this afternoon. But my passion is research. I will probably return to doing research with my own hands.”