Advances in science for a future of peace. An Interview with Fabiola Gianotti – Part 1
CERN is one of the most advanced scientific laboratories in the world, but it also offers an opportunity for discussion to scientists coming from around the world, often from countries that are in conflict.
We met Fabiola Gianotti (Photo Credit: CERN), Director-General of CERN since 2016 and former Spokesperson for the ATLAS scientific experiment, which led to the first observation of the Higgs boson in 2012. She explains to us the key role that this organization plays in promoting scientific progress and ‘connecting’ people.
The CERN in Geneva is well known for its particle accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider, or LHC. What is this accelerator for and how many people work there?
The LHC is the most powerful accelerator ever built and involves about 17,000 scientists from over 110 countries, many of which are in conflict. What we do at the LHC is accelerate proton beams and steer them in opposite directions, and then collide them, inside a 27 kilometre-long underground ring. Collisions break particles into their fundamental constituents – such as quarks or electrons – and, at the same time, the energy produced during the collisions could produce new particles. This allows us to study matter up to scales of 10-8 metres, corresponding to a billionth of a billionth of a metre, and the study of this infinitely small dimension also helps us to understand the infinitely large, like the structure and the evolution of the Universe.
How can one understand the Universe through elementary particles?
Our approach is complementary to what large telescopes do: they try to understand the evolution of the Universe through the observation of its macrostructures. Even the most advanced telescopes, however, collide with a ’wall’ situated about 380,000 years after the Big Bang, because in earlier times light was ‘trapped’ inside a particle gas and could not reach us. To go further back in time we need to use particle accelerators that allow us to study the state of the Universe and the interactions between fundamental particles in earlier times. So far, for example, we have been able to study phenomena that occurred a millionth of a millionth of a second after the Big Bang.
July 4, 2012 was a great day for science worldwide and for CERN, with the discovery of the Higgs boson, which you were the first to announce as the Spokesperson for the ATLAS experiment. What did that achievement mean and what other answers await us?
The Higgs boson was at the same time a great achievement and a new beginning for physics. A great achievement because it allowed us to complete the Standard Model (the theory that describes the elementary particles of matter and their interactions, Ed.), a new beginning because it allowed us to open the doors to a new physics. The Standard Model, in fact, is not able to answer all the questions that are still open in fundamental physics and the Higgs boson is one of the tools through which we can investigate this new physics. Other questions we are trying to answer concern the composition of the dark Universe, which represents about 95% of the Universe, and the asymmetry between matter and antimatter, to try to explain why the latter disappeared during the evolution of the Universe.
“Creating a shared future in a fractured world” was the main theme of this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, which you had the honour of co-chairing. How can science contribute to reducing fractures in the world?
Science can play a fundamental role in breaking down barriers and connecting people around the world because it is universal and unifying: it is universal because the laws of physics are the same everywhere in the world and for every citizen of the world, regardless of race and passport, and it is unifying because the quest for knowledge and the passion for learning are shared values of all human beings and even go beyond our deepest values, such as race or political objectives. For this reason, places like CERN can plant seeds of peace and contribute to breaking down barriers, nurturing the young generation in a respectful and tolerant environment that values diversity and inclusiveness.