Friday, 2 August 2013

Physical attraction

Fabiola Gianotti - huntress of the god particle 
Fabiola Gianotti, world-famous particle physicist, is interviewed in the Weekend edition of the Financial Times, reminding me not only of the fascinating trip I made to CERN in April but also of my quest to find out why there are more women physicists in Italy than in any other European country.

Described as the defining face of the hunt for the Higgs Boson, because of her lucid performance as the spokeswoman and co-ordinator of the Atlas experiment that made the breakthrough in detecting the so-called God particle in the summer of 2012, Milan-born Gianotti has become a role model for many young would-be scientists, especially female ones.

I was visiting CERN as one of a small group from the Friends of Imperial College invited to see the CMS (Compact Muon Solenoid) experiment masterminded by Imperial's Professor Tajinder Virdee. Click here for more about the trip. The CMS is, with the Atlas experiment, a key part in the search for the Higgs Boson. It is the point on the 27km Large Hadron Collider running deep in the ground around Geneva where the cataclysmic collisions take place, replicating the big bang of the birth of the universe.

Before visiting the CMS experiment, we are given an introductory presentation. Amongst the facts and figures about this extraordinary collaborative venture, I spot that of the 6,000 or so scientists at CERN, there are currently twice the number of Italian scientists (1455) than from the UK (728). The presentation is being given by Dr Mario Campanelli, so who better to ask why physics is such an attractive subject for his fellow countrymen - and women?

He ponders for a few moments. "It is a cultural thing, I think," he says. "In Northern Europe, it is regarded as a technical or engineering discipline and it is people with scientifically inclined minds that tend to study it. In Italy and  much of southern Europe, we see physics as a philosophical or even metaphysical discipline."

Dr Campanelli then reels off the names of women colleagues who are leaders in their field including  Lisa Randall a theoretical physicist and expert on particle physics and cosmology at Harvard; Dr Ilaria Segoni, particle physicist, and - hooray - Tara Shears, Professor of Physics at Liverpool University. She began working at CERN on the OPAL experiment, measuring the lifetime of the tantalisingly named beauty quarks, before joining the team at CMS and seeking answers to why there's so little antimatter in the universe.

Visible women at CERN
Later, as we emerge from the lift that has taken us 100m below ground to see the extraordinary engineering of the Large Hadron Collider, we are confronted by a huge photographic collage of the people working on the project - and it is refreshing to see how many of them are women. Yet despite this, there is an active group of women at CERN who believe that the current rate of 18 per cent female amongst the scientists is nowhere near good enough - and seized a golden opportunity to raise the issue.

Long way down - and up
When CERN was given observer status at the UN General Assembly in April this year, it dedicated its first act to highlighting the disparity between women and men who build careers in science. Kate Pachal of the University of Oxford, Barbara Millan Mejias of the University of Zurich and Sarah Saif El Nasr of the University of Bristol delivered, via web conference, a set of 10 recommendations to bring about change. See the CERN newsletter.

But let's return to that philosophical v scientific debate in relation to  physics. Fabiola Gianotti's schooling was focused almost exclusively on the classical humanities. It is a cliche she says, that scientists are only interested in data and hard facts. An accomplished pianist, she sees many links between physics and mathematics,  art, architecture and music. Lisa Randall, the Harvard professor, has written an opera.

The words of Arlene McConnell, The Institution of Engineering & Technology's Young Woman Engineer of the Year come back to me. Speaking at the launch of the Smith Institute report Unlocking Potential last year, she bemoaned the fact that so few women make the transition from  engineering study into engineering careers. Observing that many young women are taking combined courses such as engineering and music, she comments, "While engineering provided an outlet for their problem-solving and analytical passions, they felt that music quenched their creative thirsts."

This should not be a surprise. From Leonardo da Vinci through to Professor Sir Robert Winston (musician, film maker and writer as well as world famous medical man) there have been many examples of Renaissance man. Now is the time to encourage and nurture more Renaissance women, with persuasive arguments demonstrating the artistry of mathematics, the philosophy of physics and the humanity of engineering.

Sandi and Rod go underground