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A Celebrated Physicist With a Passion for Music

Fabiola Gianotti, the first woman to direct CERN, dreamed of becoming a ballerina, studied piano, but ultimately chose a career in science.


Fabiola Gianotti, director general of CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research. Elisabeth Real for The New York Times

MEYRIN, Switzerland — Fabiola Gianotti is one of the most important physicists in the world, and when she gazes at the heavens after dark, she sees more than the moon, the stars and the Milky Way.

For her, the night sky is a daily reminder of humanity’s ignorance of the origins of the universe.

“When you look at the sky at night, you see only 5 percent of what’s out there,” she said in an interview. “The rest we don’t know, so we call it dark energy and dark matter. It’s a bit embarrassing for us physicists to understand only 5 percent of the universe. Come on! We have to solve this problem, O.K.?”

Dr. Gianotti, 57, is neither arrogant nor naïve. She is the first female director of the European Organization for Nuclear Research — or CERN — where the world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator is deep underground outside Geneva.

She led one of the two giant CERN experiments teams that in 2012 resulted in the discovery of the Higgs boson, the particle that explains why some other elementary particles have mass. It is so awe-inspiring that it’s been nicknamed the “God particle.” She and the leader of the other team announced the discovery to the world.

Since then, there has been no major discovery at CERN, frustrating and even depressing some of its physicists. But the Italian-born Dr. Gianotti is known as an unwavering optimist who also knows how to sell science to a general audience. In January, she served in an all-female lineup of leaders at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

“It was the first time in the history of Davos that the head of a scientific organization was chosen to be a co-chair,” she said. “That was a very good sign. My message was that science has no passport, no gender, no race, no culture, no political party. I said that science can play a key role in connecting people and creating a shared future in a fractured world, because science is universal and unifying.”

The Atlas detector is one of two general-purpose detectors at the Large Hadron Collider. It investigates a wide range of physics, from the search for the Higgs boson to extra dimensions and particles that could make up dark matter. Elisabeth Real for The New York Times

CERN operates with an annual budget of nearly $1.2 billion from member states and works with 15,000 scientists from more than 110 nations in both Geneva and in laboratories around the world.

The T-shirts sold in the CERN gift shop attest to the organization’s success and power.

One is printed with the equation that sums up the current understanding of fundamental particles and forces, which CERN experiments have helped verify.

The other celebrates a scientific discovery that more directly affects daily life around the world: it is the first page of the “Information Management” proposal by the CERN physicist Tim Berners-Lee in 1989 that created the World Wide Web.

Dr. Gianotti calls scientific experiments the drivers of innovation, often quoting Abraham Flexner, the founding director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., who praised the “usefulness of useless knowledge.”

“Quantum mechanics was considered to be completely useless knowledge,” she said. “Yet we wouldn’t have modern electronics today without it. Our GPS wouldn’t work without knowledge of relativity.”

The daughter of a geologist from the Piedmont region of Italy who taught her to love nature and a mother from Sicily who was passionate about music and art, Dr. Gianotti dreamed of becoming a prima ballerina as a child. She aimed high: she wanted to dance at La Scala in Milan or with the Bolshoi in Moscow.

The cafeteria at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research. Elisabeth Real for The New York Times

But it was piano, not dance, that proved irresistible. She received a piano degree in Italy and considered becoming a classical pianist, but then moved on to earn a Ph.D. in physics at the University of Milan. She started her career at CERN with a graduate fellowship in 1994, and wrote her dissertation on experiments at CERN.

“I had to choose,” she said. “I decided I could cultivate music — but not physics — as a hobby.”

She was inspired to do scientific research after reading a biography of Marie Curie. “I loved the fact that research was an integral part of her home life,” she said. “She prepared the soup for dinner at the same time she was changing the radioactive sample in the next room.”

Dr. Gianotti’s belief in the need to break down barriers between the arts and science also stems from her passion for music. “The rigor, the precision and the creativity that I learned from my music studies are as important as my physics studies in what I do today as a scientist,” she said. “Music is with me every day.”

Even in the male-dominated world of science, she insists that she has never faced discrimination because of her sex. “I cannot say myself that I ever felt discriminated against,” she said. “Perhaps I was but I didn’t realize it. Now I know many female colleagues who really had hard times in their careers. Clearly we still have a lot to do to in giving everybody the same opportunities.”

At for CERN employees, only 12 percent of the 2,500 physicists and engineers are women. CERN has launched initiatives to promote all forms of diversity, including of women, with monitoring of career advancement and outreach programs.

Inside the dual phase giant neutrino detector that CERN is currently constructing in partnership with the United States. Elisabeth Real for The New York Times

At CERN, Dr. Gianotti is a passionate 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. “It’s a way of spreading scientific knowledge around the world, particularly to less-privileged countries,” she said.

Over the years, Dr. Gianotti has become a role model for women by virtue of her position, not by design. “I am very visible, so I guess that I am a role model,” she said. “It’s useful for many young women to see successful women and see opportunities for themselves to build a brilliant career. If I can be helpful, of course, I am very, very, very happy.”

The physicists who work with her praise her humanity. What sometimes goes unsaid is the fact that her work — and the quest for knowledge that goes with it — has always dominated her life.

“She’s an amazing woman who has dedicated her life to physics,” said Rende Steerenberg, the Dutch physicist who heads operations of CERN’s giant particle collider. “But sure, she has made sacrifices.”

Steven Goldfarb, an American physicist at CERN, recalled the time late one evening on a weekend that he sent Dr. Gianotti a paper he had just written. “She looked at it and commented that same night,” he said. “Women who are leaders in science don’t sleep until they get the job done.”

Joel Butler, a physicist at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, who leads another CERN detector team, calls her a “workaholic, no doubt about it.” But then, he edits himself, saying: “She’s a warrior — for so many good things. We live in a world in which truth is not always valued. And she stands for truth.”

The Universe of Microcosm exhibition venue at CERN. Elisabeth Real for The New York Times

Dr. Gianotti, who has never married, lives in an apartment with a view of Lake Geneva and Mont Blanc from her balcony window. She plays her favorite composers — Bach, Schubert, Scarlatti, Haydn, Brahms — on a Yamaha upright piano, sometimes on a mute setting with earphones so as not to disturb her neighbors.

Asked whether she had to sacrifice her personal life for the sake of her career, she replied: “It was not a conscious and deliberate sacrifice. My professional life had a quicker and better expansion than my private life. It’s how life evolves.”

She said she never looks back in life — or in work. “I’m not a person who has regrets,” she said. “We have opportunities in life. We have to take them, and we always have to be positive.”

Selected quotations:

On whether God exists:

There is no unique answer. There are people who say, “Oh, what I observe brings me to something beyond what I see,” and there are people who say, “What I observe is what I believe, and I stop here.” It’s enough to say that physics cannot demonstrate the existence or not of God.

On why there are so many Italian women in physics:

There are many theories about why there are so many Italian women in physics compared to other countries. One is that physics opens the road to teaching in high school and I remember when I was studying science there weren’t many science teachers. Teaching at high school was considered a good job for women.

On the relationship between cooking and science:

In the kitchen you need to be rigorous and precise. Otherwise the soufflé doesn’t take shape. It’s all about thermodynamics. At the same time you have be creative. There is no fun just following a recipe mathematically. I can start with a basic carbonara and then add mushrooms and artichokes. I try to change and be an experimental cook from time to time as I do in physics.

On the need to promote global understanding:

Institutions like CERN cannot directly solve geopolitical conflicts. However, they can break down barriers. They can help the younger generation grow in a respectful and tolerant environment. CERN can give a great example of what humanity can achieve when we set aside our differences and concentrate on the common good.

On the barriers between the arts and science:

We really need to break down cultural silos. Too often people consider science and the arts completely decoupled, compartmentalized. To me they are not different things. They are both the highest expressions of creativity, of curiosity, of the ingenuity of humanity.

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