World / Science & Health

Dark matter hunt begins at CERN's 'cappuccino-a-year' atom smasher


Finding one of the building blocks of the universe is a tough act to follow.

That’s the task confronting Fabiola Gianotti when she takes over as head of CERN, the Geneva-based atom-smasher that discovered the Higgs boson particle and landed the Nobel Prize in physics for the scientists who predicted its existence.

Gianotti led one of two experiments that discovered the particle that helps physicists explain the existence of mass. She will be the first woman to head the European Organization for Nuclear Research, an organization with an annual budget of 1.1 billion Swiss francs ($1.1 billion). That’s one cappuccino a year for every European citizen, said Gianotti, a 54-year-old Italian.

Gianotti will become director general in 2016, after a $105 million upgrade of CERN’s Large Hadron Collider almost doubles the energy at which it can operate. When the world’s most powerful particle accelerator restarts next March, it will help in the quest for “new physics,” including the search for the particle constituting dark matter, the invisible energy that scientists hypothesize holds galaxies intact but has never been observed because it doesn’t absorb, reflect or emit light.

“With the discovery of the Higgs boson, one of the questions has been ticked off the list but there are many others,” Gianotti said in an interview at CERN’s headquarters Tuesday. “We hope that we can find answers, or hints for answers to at least some of them. But of course, this is in the hands of nature.”

Gianotti joined CERN in 1994, working on experiments and helping the institute build its detectors and develop software to analyze data. She was included in a list of the 100 most influential women by Forbes magazine last year for her work leading the Atlas experiment that co-discovered the Higgs boson.

Gianotti was inspired to pursue science when she was 17 years old and read a biography of Marie Curie, the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, for research on radioactivity, she said at a briefing announcing her five-year appointment last month.

The 27-km (17-mile) Large Hadron Collider, which lies beneath the Swiss-French border and cost 6 billion Swiss francs to build, shoots two beams of protons at each other at near light-speed, or more than 11,000 laps a second.

Superconducting magnets, kept at a temperature colder than outer space, guide the beams so they hit each other with as much force as two high-speed trains. Some collisions release smaller elementary particles, which are measured by enormous magnetic detectors, one of which contains more iron than the Eiffel Tower.

Results from the next round of collisions, due to start by the middle of next year, may be available in 2016 or 2017, and will help determine CERN’s next big project: the construction of either a straight-line collider or a 100-km circular accelerator that would lie partly under Lake Geneva.

That decision will also depend on whether plans for a 31-km linear collider in Japan go ahead, Gianotti said.

“If a linear collider is built in Japan, it is not likely that another one will be built in Europe on a similar timescale,” she said. “A circular hadron collider will have a much stronger motivation as a complementary facility.”

CERN is facing a 200 million-franc deficit this year because of the upgrade to its accelerator, though that should be recovered in coming years, Gianotti said.

Gianotti plans to continue a strategy led by CERN’s current director general, Rolf-Dieter Heuer, of expanding membership to boost funding. Israel this year became CERN’s 21st member state, while Turkey became an associate member, allowing Turkish companies to bid for CERN contracts.

“There are other countries that are considering to join, some as associate members and later as full members,” Gianotti said. “It’s good to continue this process of enlargement.”

Heuer, 66, has said he planned to retire when his term expires at the end of next year.

Gianotti, who also trained as a pianist at Milan’s Conservatory of Music, said that while investing in fundamental science is important for advancing understanding of the universe, it also results in practical applications such as the World Wide Web, which was invented by British scientist Tim Berners-Lee at CERN in 1989.

“Every time we make a step forward in fundamental knowledge, this sooner or later entails progress,” she said.