Fabiola Gianotti awarded the Niels Bohr Institute Medal of Honour
The LHC accelerator is running on ‘woman power’, such is a saying at CERN. One of the great top female researchers is the particle physicist Fabiola Gianotti, who for four years has been the head of one of the two large international research groups responsible for detecting the Higgs particle in the ATLAS experiment on 4 July 2012. Fabiola Gianotti has been awarded the Niels Bohr Institute’s Medal of Honour 2013.
“Fabiola Gianotti is receiving the Niels Bohr Institute’s Medal of Honour for her central role in the discovery of the Higgs boson with the ATLAS experiment at CERN’s LHC accelerator. As the overall head, she has been responsible for the experiments at all levels and the apparent success that has tentatively culminated with the discovery of the Higgs is due to her excellent guidance,” explains Robert Feidenhans'l, head of the Niels Bohr Institute.
The discovery of the Higgs is one of the most important experimental discoveries in particle physics since the 1960s, when the Standard Model was developed. In the Standard Model, the elementary particles achieve mass through their interaction with the Higgs field. The discovery of the Higgs boson confirms this mechanism and marks a dramatic breakthrough in our understanding of the concept of mass.
The search for fundamental understanding
Fabiola Gianotti has a PhD in experimental particle physics from the University of Milan in Italy. Her journey into the world of physics was somewhat unconventional. Her mother studied literature and music, her father is a geologist and in high school she followed her mother’s example and focused on literature, history, music and philosophy.
Her interest in philosophy, however, raised many questions and in order to seek a more practical answer to them, she turned to physics. She chose particle physics, because she was attracted to its quest after a fundamental understanding of the nature and the mysteries of the universe.
In 1987, she came to CERN, where she has worked on various experiments, including the search for supersymmetry. She has made very large contributions to the design, construction and operation of the ATLAS experiment.
ATLAS is the largest detector ever built at CERN and the research collaboration is comprised of almost 3,000 physicists from 169 institutions, 37 countries and five continents. Fabiola Gianotti’s intellectual strength and her excellent organizational skills were recognised in 2004, when 3,000 researchers chose her as the deputy head of the worldwide ATLAS collaboration and again in 2009 when she was appointed head of the ATLAS experiment.
Fabiola Gianotti works closely with the researchers in the Discovery Center at the Niels Bohr Institute and particle physicist Mogens Dam explains that Fabiola Gianotti is highly respected and it has been a very effective collaboration under her strong leadership. She has had a great influence on its scientific course and both the detector and the research have performed beyond all expectations.
Physics is a male-dominated field and Fabiola Gianotti was the first female leader of a physics experiment at the LHC. On this she stated the New Scientist: “CERN is such a rich environment: there are people from all over the world, young students work with established scientists and Nobel prizewinners.
So geographical origin, age and gender make no difference here. I don't feel there is anything special about a woman leading a big scientific project. On the other hand, I hope that as a woman scientist who has achieved a level of visibility in a big experiment like ATLAS, I can be an encouragement to young women who are thinking of a scientific career.”