DISRUPTIVE RESEARCH. Fabiola Gianotti is the first woman Director-General of the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva. Elected for a five year term in 2016, she was recently renominated to hold the position until 2025 and thus becomes the first Director to have two terms. The work of CERN helps to uncover what the universe is made of and how it works. They do this by providing a unique range of particle accelerator facilities to researchers, to advance the boundaries of human knowledge.

This interview is available as a podcast here.

Fabiola Gianotti, what is a particle accelerator?  

Accelerators have been developed over decades by physicists and engineers, and the technology has evolved with time. They are mainly made of magnets and accelerating structures. These instruments allow us to accelerate particles up to the highest possible energies and to bring them into collision so new particles can be produced. For instance, if you want to study the Higgs boson the only way is to produce it in high-energy collisions of particle beams.  

When CERN started in 1954 what did the scientists want to find? 

In the early 50s the study of elementary particles, now called particle physics, was called nuclear physics. The acronym CERN means Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire. The goal was to study the elementary particles using accelerators, and also cosmic rays, i.e. particles coming from the cosmos. Great discoveries have been made at CERN since then. The Higgs boson is the last one, whereas the W and the Z bosons, discovered in the early 80s, brought the Nobel Prize to Carlo Rubbia and Simon van der Meer.  

You studied physics in Italy and came here in 1994 after you had graduated. What have you worked on at CERN?  

I’ve been involved with many CERN experiments, but my main contribution has been to the scientific programme of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). I have been working in ATLAS, one of the four big experiments at the LHC, since the beginning of the project in the early 90s, and between 2009 and 2013 I was the experiment’s project leader. This was the first period of operation of the Large Hadron Collider, and it was a fantastic experience that led us to the discovery of the Higgs boson.  

The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is an accelerator that comprises a 27-kilometre ring of superconducting magnets. Why do you need such an immense machine? 

The smaller the constituents that you want to study, the higher the energy of the instrument must be. To study human cells, you need a microscope. To study the constituents of matter you need a big accelerator with very high energy. The LHC is the biggest and most powerful in the world. 

Will you create a bigger one in future? 

At the moment we are thinking of a future big accelerator that will take over from the Large Hadron Collider in the 2040s or so. Two projects are currently under study, a linear collider and a circular collider, and we are evaluating the physics potential and the technological and financial challenges of each.

“To study human cells, you need a microscope. To study the constituents of matter you need a big accelerator with very high energy.”

Alain Elkann with Fabiola Gianotti, the Director-General of the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva.

Photograph: Julien Marius Ordan
Date: 18-11-2019

Fabiola Gianotti, is the research that you do here also done elsewhere?  

There is competition and collaboration. For instance, at the moment, Japan and the US are developing facilities to study special elementary particles called neutrinos. We are not going to do this in Europe, but we are helping them realize their facilities. On the other hand, at CERN we have leadership in the energy frontier with the Large Hadron Collider, and the US, Japan, Russia and other countries have contributed in an important way to the construction of the LHC accelerator and its experiments, both for the initial project and now for its upgrade. We try to optimize resources globally across the planet. We are not going to build the same facility twice, so we work together.  

And competition? 

Japan and China are planning ambitious future linear and circular colliders, and we are in competition because we would like to have a major collider project in the future at CERN after the LHC ends its lifetime. It’s important for the European community to decide our priority here, and then to discuss with our partners to see if they can build a complementary facility that we can participate in and if they can contribute to ours. Competition is healthy because it pushes us to do our best, but at the end we are going to work together. 

This work is quite slow but after the famous discovery of the Higgs boson particle in 2012 people are already asking: where is the new discovery? 

We are lucky enough that two fundamental discoveries have been made in our lifetime, the Higgs boson and gravitational waves at the LIGO interferometer in the US. These are great achievements. But science requires patience. I don’t know what will be the next discovery, but even if there is no discovery we are going to make big steps forward by excluding, for instance, speculative theoretical scenarios, and by making precision measurement of known particles, in particular the Higgs boson. These measurements will give us a lot of insight. We discovered the Higgs boson seven years ago but this particle remains quite mysterious. We have to study it in detail to understand with very high precision how it behaves, as the Higgs boson could be a door into new physics, i.e. new particles or forces or phenomena that may allow us to answer the open questions.  

Why is the accelerator complex shut down now and how long will this last? 

The shutdown started in the beginning of 2019 and it will last until mid 2021. We shut down our accelerators typically every five years to do major maintenance work and to upgrade them. In the future, the Large Hadron Collider and the full chain of injectors that are upstream of it will be able to operate with more intense beams and maybe also with a little bit higher energy. Shutdown doesn’t mean that we are doing nothing. These are even more hectic periods, because we have hundreds of people working in the tunnel and the experimental caverns. In parallel, physicists are analyzing the large amount of data recorded so far, with the goal of improving our understanding of the Higgs boson and other known particles and of looking for new particles.  

Are you looking for the origins of the world?  

Particle physics studies nature at the level of fundamental constituents and how they behave: the forces and interactions among them at the most elementary level. These studies give us insight into the structure and evolution of the universe, because at the beginning, just after the Big Bang, the universe was made of free elementary particles. Spectacular progress has been done, but today, we only know 5 percent of the universe. 95 percent of it is dark, i.e. unknown.  

Is it the aim of CERN to discover what this dark universe is?  

The dark universe is perhaps the biggest open question in fundamental physics today. It is being addressed by a variety of experimental approaches, including accelerators, underground detectors, space missions, etc. At CERN, we may be able to produce the particles that make up the dark matter, which is about 25% of the universe.

All this is quite an achievement? 

CERN’s founding fathers would be very proud. In September 2019 we were 65 years old. I’m not so sure that they could imagine the success of CERN in terms of scientific accomplishments and of collaboration across borders. CERN has brought leadership in fundamental physics back to Europe. We have developed amazing technologies that benefit society, from the World Wide Web to medical applications. But one of the goals of the founding fathers was also to facilitate peace in the European countries through science, after the disasters of the war. Today CERN is a brilliant example of peaceful collaboration, as it attracts some 18,000 scientists from all over the world (more than 110 nationalities are represented). Science is a strong glue between people because the laws of nature are the same everywhere, and the passion for learning and understanding how things work is an intrinsic aspiration of human beings since they came on earth. 

“These studies give us insight into the structure and evolution of the universe, because at the beginning, just after the Big Bang, the universe was made of free elementary particles.”

Fabiola Gianotti, are there practical applications to what you do? 

In order to accomplish our scientific goals, we have to develop new technologies, which are transferred to society. For the LHC, for example, we built prototypes in-house together with industry, and once everything was well understood we transferred the construction of some 1,200 of magnets to industry. The impact on industry is large, and companies tell us that working in partnership with CERN is a fantastic opportunity to increase their technological competences and expand their market. CERN’s technologies find applications today in medical imaging, cancer treatment, construction of solar panels, analysis of historical relics, etc., not to mention the WEB.  

What is the impact of CERN’s work on society? 

We cannot tell if our researches and the particles that we have discovered, the W, the Z, the Higgs boson, will have a direct impact on society, but sooner or later every step forward in fundamental knowledge contributes to progress. The fathers of quantum mechanics and general relativity, Einstein, Planck, Heisenberg, Bohr and many others, were not trying to develop electronics or navigational instruments. But without quantum mechanics, modern electronics would not exist, and without taking into account the effect of general relativity GPS would not work. Fundamental research can have a disruptive impact on society. 

How did you become the director?  

The director is elected by the CERN Council, which is the governing body of the Organization. CERN was created in 1954 by 12 European countries, and today has 23 member states and eight associate member states. Non-member states also participate in our activities, from strong countries like the US, Japan, Russia and China to developing countries.  

What is the job of director at CERN? 

It varies from addressing scientific matters and financial challenges, i.e. making sure that we extract as much science as possible from the budget we have, to relations with the public and countries all over the world, and supervising a big site where every day there are seven to eight thousand people. We have scientific and technical facilities, but also restaurants, a bank, a travel office and several hotels (we are the biggest hotel in Geneva with around 500 bedrooms). Sometime I feel like a mayor of a little town. 

Do these projects cost a fortune?  

The cost of the LHC was 5 billion Swiss francs, and we built it with CERN’s annual budget. which has been constant over the years, and contributions from non-member states like the US, Russia and Japan.  

Why are you in Geneva?   

In the aftermath of World War 2 they were looking for a neutral place in the centre of Europe with favourable geology. Here we have a rock called Molasse which is softer than limestone but very resistant, and the region is seismically quiet. 

Do you need the permission of France and Switzerland to do these huge works? 

The host states, France and Switzerland, are extremely supportive of CERN because of the rich return they have in terms of industrial supplies and services and the economy of the region, with thousands of scientists living here.  

How many?  

CERN employees total about 4,000, but the laboratory hosts 180,00 people from all over the world. They come and go and are not all here at the same time, but when they are at CERN they use the local hotels, the restaurants, the cinemas etc. So it’s a big return for France and Switzerland.  

Do you have many visitors?  

130,000 a year, on average. We want to increase visit opportunities because today we have 300,000 requests and could attract even more. We have our public open days every five or six years. This year’s open days took place on the 14 and 15 of September. In one weekend we got 75,000 visitors, not just local tourism but from all over the world, from India, the U.S., Japan etc.  

Who are the tourists?  

Families, students, senior people. It’s really a mixture. There is a big thirst for learning more about science and what CERN does. That’s why we want to expand our educational activities targeting the general public, in particular with the Science Gateway project, designed by architect Renzo Piano, which we plan to open at the end of 2022.  

What is the Science Gateway project? 

It is our new centre for scientific outreach and learning. We will show to the public real pieces of accelerators and detectors, like those that are underground and cannot always be visited, because when the accelerator operates they are not accessible. There will be a big auditorium for scientific or societal presentations and debates, for instance on the importance of science for the implementation of the UN sustainable development goals. There will be an interactive immersive zone to learn science in a simple and attractive way, and laboratories with experiments that children can do with their own hands. The FCA Foundation, the charitable arm of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, is the main donor of the project and the auditorium will be named after Sergio Marchionne. Together with Renzo Piano and John Elkann, we share the values and goals of this initiative.  

How many universities work with you?  

Some 900 universities. And most of them send people here to participate in the experiments.  

Linear accelerator 4 (Linac4) is designed to boost negative hydrogen ions to high energies. It is scheduled to become the source of proton beams for the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) after the long shutdown in 2019-2020.

The Linac4 accelerator. Copyright: Robert Hradil, Monika Majer/ProStudio22.ch


The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is the world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator.

3D cut of the LHC dipole

Alain Elkann visits the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) general-purpose detector at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). CMS has a broad physics programme ranging from studying the Standard Model (including the Higgs boson) to searching for extra dimensions and particles that could make up dark matter.

The heart of the CMS experiment – the pixel detector – enables CMS ability to make precise measurements.

“Fundamental research can have a disruptive impact on society.”

New discovery brings front page glamour, but precise measuring is as important as discovery. Fabiola Gianotti, do you feel supported by the press and by the politicians, or are they impatient?  

We have to communicate the importance of what we do to all the stakeholders, from politicians, to scientists from other fields and the public. The member states and associate member states are extremely supportive and pay their contribution to the budget on time, which shows strong support and commitment to CERN. We cannot promise discoveries. History shows that sometimes discoveries are totally unexpected. But what is important is to advance our knowledge and understanding of fundamental physics, and this can be done in different ways, through discoveries, through measurements of special particles like the Higgs boson and through demonstrating that theories that have been with us for decades have turned out not to be correct. This can help us reorient our exploration towards more promising directions.

How do you include your research in the drive for sustainability? 

CERN is very much engaged in the sustainable development goals and works with other international organizations here in Geneva. We try to become increasingly more respectful of the environment by using energy more efficiently, promoting soft mobility, mitigating the impact of CERN on the surroundings, etc. We have a project that will reuse the heat from the cooling towers in one of the LHC points to warm up part of a nearby town.

Do you work on climate change?  

Not directly, but we have a small experiment at CERN, CLOUD, which uses beams from one of our accelerators to study the impact of cosmic rays on the formation of clouds. This is our small contribution to climate science.  

What percent of the people here are women?  

Today, women scientists (physicists, engineers, computer scientists) at CERN are 18%. There has been great progress, as we were less than 8% in 1995. More and more women study sciences and engineering and have good career opportunities. But there is a long way to go. At CERN we have facilities and policies to support women. We have a crèche, part time work, parental leave. And we monitor the careers of both male and female scientists, to ensure equal treatment 

You have been involved here for many years. Has a lot of progress been made in physics? 

Great progress, great steps forward. Yet we still have a lot to discover, which is very exciting. The path of knowledge is a very long one. Every time you discover and understand something, more questions open up.  

Are you happy to have been renominated as director? 

Being CERN’s director is a great honour but also a big responsibility. I am in favour of rotation of these tasks. However, in the coming years we will be laying the foundation for the next big project, and continuity in leadership may help. That’s why I made myself available for a second term. Clearly there are many things in physics and beyond that I had to set aside during the past four years, but being the head of this fantastic organization is a great privilege and a great opportunity.  

Would you prefer to go back to being a full time scientist?  

I still devote more than 50 percent of my time to scientific and technical matters, but more from a strategic viewpoint. To take the right decisions, you need to be well informed and up to date with the scientific results and developments. I miss the hands-on research work, but I enjoy my current work very much.

Images by courtesy of CERN which retains their copyright.