July 26, 2013 7:05 pm

Cern physicist Fabiola Gianotti on hunting for the ‘God particle’

The Italian scientist on how her work on the Higgs boson can be linked to a love of nature and music
Fabiola Gianotti in her Geneva home©Daniel Lopez-Paullada

Fabiola Gianotti in her Geneva home with ‘string theory’ background

Last summer scientists at Cern, the European nuclear research centre, promised to answer the ultimate question in confirming that the mass-giving Higgs boson, the so-called “God particle”, had finally been detected by the underground Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, Switzerland. They did not disappoint – the Higgs had indeed been discovered – and the press conference announcement was greeted with excitement around the world.

For laypeople tuning in that day, the talk of fields, thresholds and luminosity was confusing but one voice stood out among the presenting physicists. It was that of Fabiola Gianotti, the official spokeswoman and co-ordinator of the Atlas experiment, which had made the scientific breakthrough.

For Gianotti, whose career at Cern began with a fellowship in 1994, it marked the culmination of nearly 18 years spent at the Swiss-based research facility. For the past 10 of those years she has been based in her current home, an elegantly furnished apartment situated between her workplace and the centre of Geneva.

It was Gianotti who guided the world through her team’s complex findings, and her decisive and impassioned delivery certainly struck a chord – as did the fact that she was the only woman among the key representatives. And it is perhaps for these reasons that she became the defining face of the experiment and its successes from then on.

However, it is not an accolade Gianotti is comfortable with. In her eyes a single individual can never take credit for an experiment the size of Atlas. It was a team effort consisting of a veritable cohort of international scientists, she insists.

“In the big experiments, Atlas and CMS, we have something like 3,000 scientists each, and over 60 nationalities,” she says, adding that there are also many other women who hold important responsibilities.

Nevertheless, she cannot deny that she has become a role model for many young would-be scientists, especially female ones, as a result. And it is a position that she takes seriously.

Work did not stop with the particle’s discovery – in fact, there was more data than ever to process – and throughout the rest of the year Gianotti was frequently called upon to travel abroad for public lectures. “The discovery of a new particle is almost like a new friend,” she says, “you need to get to know them better, and this somewhat changes your life.”

She is glad to be back. “For me, my home is a peaceful place where I can rest and it gives me back energy ... I love being here with this nice view. It’s like living in a holiday home. I can almost touch the lake and the mountains.”

Gianotti’s sitting room©Daniel Lopez-Paullada

The sitting room

Certainly, when it comes to contemplating the universe within the confines of a European city, it is not a bad spot. The defining feature of the apartment is the fifth-floor balcony view of Lake Geneva and – on a clear day – western Europe’s tallest mountain, Mont Blanc.

Nature is her ultimate inspiration, Gianotti says, and she explains how she inherited her love of it from her father, an Italian micropaleontologist. His work meant the family was mainly based in busy cities, first Rome and later Milan, but he ensured his young daughter was taken on excursions to the great outdoors at every opportunity.

“I remember very long walks in the mountains, where we stopped at every step to admire a little plant or a little butterfly,” she says.

An ammonite fossil, well known for displaying nature’s Fibonacci code, sits on her coffee table, a strong reminder of those times with her father, as well as a clue to guests that this is the home not just of a scientist but of a modern Renaissance woman.

The flat is dominated by contemporary furniture, arranged throughout an open-plan sitting room and adjoining dining area, but there is an eclectic range of objects on display: a small metal elephant, statues and pots from her grandmother, antique opera glasses, a backgammon set. A large Japanese screen painting is positioned on the wall of the dining room and a number of other Japanese-themed boxes, cabinets and curios are scattered throughout the living space.

Gianotti’s dining room©Daniel Lopez-Paullada

The dining room with Asian wall decoration

“Like in nature, I like things which are based on a few simple principles, even though their manifestation can be very rich,” she says.

The interiors also reflect her love of art, literature and music. For while Gianotti may have made a name for herself in physics, her schooling in Italy was focused almost exclusively on the classical humanities. It is a cliché, she says, that scientists are only interested in data and hard facts.

“There are many links between physics and art,” Gianotti says. “For me, physics and nature have very nice foundations from an aesthetic point of view, and at the same time art is based on physics and mathematical principle. If you build a nice building, you have to build it with some criteria because otherwise it collapses.”

An accomplished pianist, Gianotti would not be happy if she could not indulge in her love of music. Back in Italy she used to own a mini grand piano but here in she has had to settle for a modern upright. Playing it, often late at night on a mute setting, is, she says, her favourite pastime.

In Gianotti’s mind musical harmonies are just another manifestation of physics. The musical notes of her favourite composers – Beethoven, Bach and Schubert – are in that sense, she says, just another type of equation. “There is clearly an underlying physics and mathematics. The artist then puts his or her inventiveness, fantasy and artistic feeling on top of this. So there is a very strong connection, which is why many scientists are also excellent painters and musicians,” she adds.

In fact, it is fair to say that Gianotti sees a connection to physics in almost everything around her. A modern triptych painting featuring a collection of chaotic golden squiggles and bands hangs on the wall of her sitting room. She says she bought the piece because it reminded her of string theory.

Gianotti’s espresso maker©Daniel Lopez-Paullada

Gianotti’s espresso maker

Meanwhile, the small kitchen, adjacent to the dining room, is more of a lab for biochemical experimentation than the process otherwise known as cooking. “You cannot just put ingredients together in a random way,” she says. “There is a minimum of mathematics. You have to follow a recipe.”

As an Italian, Gianotti takes an especially serious approach to coffee and has been known to scold anyone who dares drink a cappuccino in her presence after midday. “In Italy, all coffee is espresso.” she says, pointing to a traditional stove-top pot.

Cern, of course, is a cultural melting pot crammed with some of the world’s brightest and most creative minds. And to some degree the facility, with its gigantic scientific instruments, is just as much Gianotti’s home as anywhere else. “There is nothing more exciting than having a life devoted to fundamental knowledge and to contributing to advance the borders of knowledge,” she says.

On that front she has been impressed by the overwhelming public interest in her work and that of her colleagues – something she suggests may be connected to the economic crisis and a wider shift in what humanity perceives as valuable. “In some sense the values of society are being revalued,” she says. “We are moving to an economy which is more human-aware.” Unsurprisingly, for Gianotti, a scientist who spends her day searching for matter, real value does not necessarily lie in materiality at all. “It’s our knowledge, our soul, our spirit and our intelligence which for me represents value,” she says. “These are things that are native and belong to us, whatever our job or realisation in life, and which nobody can take away.”

Gianotti is continuing to push the bounds of knowledge, reviewing the huge amounts of data the first phase produced while overseeing a proposed upgrade. The quest for new physics, new particles and new phenomena will resume at Cern when the Large Hadron Collider is restarted at a higher energy and sensitivity in 2015.

Izabella Kaminska is an FT Alphaville reporter

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Favourite thing

Gianotti’sYamaha upright piano©Daniel Lopez-Paullada

Gianotti does not hesitate when asked about her favourite possession. “I have no doubt, it’s my piano,” she says, pointing to the light wooden Yamaha upright that stands in the corner of her living room. “When I was studying I had a baby grand piano. I was spending many hours on my piano. Playing, exercising and practising. It became part of me.” Gianotti often relaxes by playing the works of classical composers and, above all, she loves Schubert. “He is the most romantic of the classicals.” Her busy schedule means she often finds herself playing at strange times of day. Luckily for her Swiss neighbours, they are never disturbed because the Yamaha has a silent mode, which allows Gianotti to listen to the music it produces on headphones. “You get this type of fusion with the instrument,” she says. “The instrument becomes something that is part of you because it is a means through which you express your feelings, your emotions.”

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