Just to be perverse I've chosen a woman working in subnuclear physics, which is about as far as you can get from an applied science. But Fabiola Gianotti is in charge of one of the most impressive pieces of technology ever built – the ATLAS detector at CERN's Large Hadron Collider. The size of a five storey building yet able to detect particle trajectories with micrometre precision, it required over 2,000 scientists and engineers to assemble its hundreds of millions of components. Rather than searching for a particular particle of a particular energy, ATLAS is designed to detect the unexpected, integrating 100 million different electronic signals in order to detect any of the myriad particles that may be created in high energy collisions in the LHC.
Fabiola Gianotti had originally planned a career in music, and trained as a pianist at the Milan Conservatory, before deciding that a career in physics could better address her fascination with the big questions of how the universe worked. She did a PhD in experimental sub-nuclear physics at the University of Milan and joined CERN, a remarkable collaboration between physicists of 37 different countries, in 1987. On the first of March this year she was elected head of ATLAS at CERN.
She is disappointed that physics is seen as a male subject and is quoted as saying: "Women have obstacles in the field for merely social reasons. Research does not allow you to make life plans. And the difficulties for women with a family are many. Something should be done, for instance, to develop more structures that would enable women with children to go through a physics career without too many obstacles, starting with nursery schools."
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