2 febbraio - 20 maggio


Paola Gianotti is an Italian researcher at the Frascati National Laboratories of the INFN. She works on the FINUDA and PANDA experiments.

At the Frascati National Laboratories we have interviewed Paola Gianotti about herself and her job.

My name is Paola Gianotti, I am 45 years old and I was born in Turin, where I took my degree in Physics in 1988. My professor helped me to get a fellowship at CERN, and in 1991 I started work at the LNF.

Q: Which difficulties did you have to face and what was the most exciting episode of your career?

When I finished university Carlo Rubbia had just received the Nobel Prize and there was a general climate of renewed interest in science. The only draw back of working in Geneva was having to travel back and forth. Therefore, when, after having spent some time in Geneva, I decided to return to Italy, it was not too difficult to find employment as a scientist and I applied for a job at LNF, also because my fiancé lived in this area. It is difficult to point out the most exciting moment in my career, since I have always enjoyed my work. Maybe the moment when I was offered to go to Geneva I felt particularly honored to be chosen for such a prestigious position.

Q: What are you working at presently?

Right now I am working on two different projects, which often happens in this field: one project is in the final data taking phase, and the next project is being set up. In Germany, near Frankfurt, a new international nuclear physics laboratory is starting up. It has already been given the go ahead by the German government, but other countries are also expected to contribute. We are now in the phase of determining the structure of the collaboration group, and I am promoting a new experiment which will take antiprotons into Europe (CERN already has a small accelerator which produces mainly antihydrogen, but we want to obtain higher energy antiprotons for particular fundamental physics studies). This experiment is called PANDA and should start taking data in 2014. I am proud to say I am the deputy spokesperson for the international collaboration group of this experiment, which involves 400 people from 16 different countries. The other project is FINUDA which is now finishing its data taking.

Q: Which do you believe will be the next discovery in physics?

That is probably the Higgs boson, for which the LHC at CERN has been built specifically. And even if we do not find it, its not being found in itself will still be a great discovery with many implications.

Q: In your opinion, which is the best discovery ever and who is your favorite scientist?

In the twentieth century the theory of quantum mechanics was a true revolution even if it wasn’t properly a discovery, but still it meant having to use a less deterministic and more probabilistic approach to physics. I quite like eclectic people, so Leonardo
Da Vinci to me is the perfect scientist, since he was also a poet, painter, engineer, physicist and physician. Obviously this is a bit romantic, nowadays jobs have to be  highly specialized.

Q: How important is the collaboration in scientific research, especially among researchers from different countries?

I believe that the enormous acceleration in the amount of scientific and technological discoveries has only been possible through teamwork. In this sense, CERN has been a milestone: progress in science serves the common wealth, on a global level, and now that projects become ever more costly because of their huge size, single countries will never be able to sustain such an effort. My experience as a physicist is that people who work together respect each other and set aside their political and religious differences in order to achieve a common goal.

Q: How can a scientist be defined and how do talent, intuition and study influence his profession?

I think scientists need to be fundamentally curious. When I was a child I did not think I would become a scientist later, but I did wonder a lot about how and why things are the way they are. Today we are surrounded by technology, but very few people would be able to explain how it works. Of course you cannot expect everyone to be able to repair their own mobile phone or television set, but it would be great if people at least did not consider technology like some kind of magic. First of all, to be a scientist you should have lots of curiosity, but you also need to study quite a bit because science has become very complicated. I think some luck helps too: to be at the right experiment at the right time certainly improves your chances of scientific recognition. So the ingredients for a good scientist are lots of work, lots of study and lots of passion.

Q: What are your hobbies and passions and what book would you suggest us to read?

This work really engulfs you, normal work hours do not exist. But apart from my work I also have a family to manage. And I like reading too. I would suggest two books, one is called “Thirty Years That Upset the World”, and it is written for the general public by a Russian physicist, G. Gamow, who has had the luck of having known all those who stood at the cradle of quantum mechanics, like Heisenberg, Einstein, Dirac and Bohr. The other book is by a physicist I personally know very well, Paolo Giordano, it is called “The Loneliness of Prime Numbers”. It is an easy read and it shows that even a scientist can be interested in literature, and excel in other sectors beyond his own.

Q. Italy is going through a period of crisis, and modern research constantly requires state financing. Do you think this is right, or should that money be spent elsewhere?

I think investing in research is useful, especially now that we go through a big crisis. Rather than dishing out free grants to the banks, or putting up ever more buildings on our territory, I think that Italy should use its only really big resource: brains, for producing new ideas. So investing in research is a useful way of climbing out of this crisis.

Q. Can you give us an example of recent useful products of research?

The second last of the Nobel Prizes was won by a group of researchers who discovered how to store lots more data on a hard disk. Another example is the internet, which was born at CERN to enable scientists to share experimental data with other scientists all over the world.

Q. Have you ever had to study something you did not like?

Actually no. Of course in this kind of work there are thing you like less, but you do them all the same because you can see the use of it. But if you mean: have I ever been forced to study something against my will, then I must say nobody has ever pressed me into doing something. I find that researchers are very democratic.

Q. Any advice?

Yes: try to study as many scientific subjects as you can. They are essential, since they are the cornerstone of human progress. Music, art, literature – they help you to live better, but they are luxuries we can afford only thanks to scientific and technological progress.