At Italy On This Day you will read about events and festivals, about important moments in history, and about the people who have made Italy the country it is today, and where they came from. Italy is a country rich in art and music, fashion and design, food and wine, sporting achievement and political diversity. Italy On This Day provides fascinating insights to help you enjoy it all the more.

Monday, 29 October 2018

Fabiola Gianotti - particle physicist

First woman to be director-general of CERN


Fabiola Gianotti - the would-be concert pianist who instead became a brilliant physicist
Fabiola Gianotti - the would-be concert pianist
who instead became a brilliant physicist
The particle physicist Fabiola Gianotti, who in 2016 became the first woman to be made director-general in the 64-year history of the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, was born on this day in 1960 in Rome.

She led one of the two teams of physicists who working for the organisation - general known as CERN after its title in French - whose experiments in 2012 resulted in the discovery of the Higgs boson, the particle that explains why some other elementary particles have mass.

The discovery was regarded as so significant in the advancement of scientific knowledge that it was nicknamed the “God particle.”

As the project leader and spokesperson of the ATLAS project at CERN, which involved a collaboration of around 3,000 physicists from 38 countries, Dr. Gianotti announced the discovery of the particle.

Their work involved the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the world's largest and most powerful particle collider and the largest machine of any kind on the planet, which lies in a tunnel 27km (17 miles) in circumference, 175 metres (574 ft) beneath the France–Switzerland border near Geneva.

Fabiola Gianotti at the Large Hadron Collider site deep underground on the France-Switzerland border
Fabiola Gianotti at the Large Hadron Collider site deep
underground on the France-Switzerland border
Her team were awarded science’s most lucrative award, a special Fundamental Physics Prize worth $3 million. Time magazine named her among its people of the year; Forbes placed her in its top 100 influential women list.

Brought up in Milan the daughter of a geologist from Piedmont who taught her to love nature, and a mother from Sicily who was passionate about music and art, Dr. Gianotti had ambitions to become a prima ballerina as a child, when she dreamt of becoming a dancer with the Bolshoi at Teatro alla Scala in Milan.

She also considered becoming a classical pianist, such was her talent for music. She spent two years at the Milan Conservatory, but after earning a PhD in physics at the University of Milan, she began her career at CERN with a graduate fellowship in 1994.

Fabiola Gianotti was inspired to break the traditional male  domination of particle science by a biography of Marie Curie
Fabiola Gianotti was inspired to break the traditional male
domination of particle science by a biography of Marie Curie
Dr. Gianotti was inspired to devote herself to scientific research after reading a biography of Marie Curie, who developed the theory of radioactivity, techniques for isolating radioactive isotopes, and discovered the elements polonium and radium as well as being the mother of two children.

Even though particle physics has traditionally been a male-dominated domain - even now only 12 percent of the 2,500 physicists and engineers at CERN are women and only 20 per cent of the team that worked on the ATLAS project were women - Dr. Gianotti claims that she has never had a sense that she was discriminated against for being female.

However, she has argued that women in particle physics should be given more support when having children, claiming that a lack of support made it difficult for her to marry and start a family, a decision for which she has expressed regret.

Gianotti on the cover of Time magazine
Gianotti on the cover of Time magazine
The author or co-author of more than 500 publications in peer-reviewed scientific journals, Dr. Gianotti is is a promoter of the “Open Science” movement, in particular the publication of scientific works in open access journals and the development of open access hardware and software in order to spread scientific knowledge to less-privileged countries.

Brought up a Catholic, Gianotti insists that religion and science are not in competition with each other, saying that while science cannot demonstrate or disprove the existence of God, religion has to respect science, and they should co-exist in a climate of tolerance.

She lives in in Switzerland in an apartment with a view of Lake Geneva and Mont Blanc, plays music by her favourite composers on a Yamaha upright piano, has a passion for cooking and Italian culture.

The Milan Conservatory, Italy's largest music college, has a star-studded list of alumni
The Milan Conservatory, Italy's largest music college, has
a star-studded list of alumni
Travel tip:

The Milan Conservatory - also known as Conservatorio di musica “Giuseppe Verdi” di Milano - was established by a royal decree of 1807 in Milan, capital of the Napoleonic Kingdom of Italy. It opened the following year with premises in the cloisters of the Baroque church of Santa Maria della Passione in Via Conservatorio. The largest institute of musical education in Italy, its alumni include Giacomo Puccini, Amilcare Ponchielli, Arrigo Boito, Pietro Mascagni, Riccardo Muti and Ludovico Einaudi.

Da Vinci's The Last Supper is one of the many reasons to visit Milan
Da Vinci's The Last Supper is one of the many
reasons to visit Milan
Travel tip:

Milan, where Gianotti grew up, is a global capital of fashion and design but also a financial hub, the home of the Italian stock exchange. Its historical monuments include the Gothic Duomo di Milano, the Santa Maria delle Grazie convent, which houses Leonardo da Vinci’s mural The Last Supper,  the Sforza Castle, the Teatro alla Scala and the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II.

More reading:

The scientist from Rome who created the world's first nuclear reactor

How Laura Bassi broke new ground for women in science - 240 years ago

Margherita Hack - astrophysicist who helped make science popular

Also on this day:

1922: Mussolini is appointed Prime Minister

2003: The death of tenor Franco Corelli


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