I think we’d be remiss if we didn’t give a proper shout-out to the 5th runner up for Time’s Person Of the Year (POY), physicist Fabiola Gianotti, part of the team that discovered the Higgs Boson particle in July. Remember? Here’s a refresher:
According to the Standard Model, the Higgs boson is the only manifestation of an invisible force field, a cosmic molasses that permeates space and imbues elementary particles with mass. Particles wading through the field gain heft the way a bill going through Congress attracts riders and amendments, becoming ever more ponderous.
Without the Higgs field, as it is known, or something like it, all elementary forms of matter would zoom around at the speed of light, flowing through our hands like moonlight. There would be neither atoms nor life.
Higgs’ is a HUGE discovery: It is the key particle that gives all matter its mass and is responsive to energy. It is the glue that holds together all of this madness and beauty on earth–well, the universe. It’s the thing that make us possible. Gianotti, who has a background in the humanities, sought to answer questions about reality through art history, literature, and philosophy before finding a home in particle physics. And we’re all better for it. The announcement of the Higgs discovery is a significant achievement in science and human history.
Gianotti led a team of 3,000 scientists, researchers, and technicians. At one of the labs responsible for uncovering the existence and behavioral nature of this particle, a significant number of women are employed. The particle physics world is highly collaborative and, as Gianotti points out, it doesn’t seem extraordinary that women are actors in these discoveries and work with men. And while the cloistered fellowship of particle physicists believe that there is gender parity among them, toiling tirelessly to explain and expose the mysteries of life, it still is worth noting that Gianotti is both bellwether and role model for a new generation of young women and men.
Gianotti is also dealing with the special burdens — and joys — that come with being a role model. She receives all manner of mail these days, often from high school students and, yes, often from girls, who are inspired by the way she has risen and thrived. But the story she likes to tell involves a young man, an undergraduate physics student in Italy who was ready to abandon his studies because he thought the future of the field was too grim. He stumbled across a magazine interview with her, hunted down her e-mail address and wrote her to say she had given him new hope, new resolve. “I called him and we had several chats, and I encouraged him strongly to continue,” Gianotti says. “I told him, ‘Never abandon your dreams. You may regret it for the rest of your life.’”
We’d also be remiss if we didn’t note that while it’s great that Time has named 2 women on the short list for POY 2012, there hasn’t been a woman POY in over 20 years. So until they fix this egregious error, maybe we could begin a new tradition here. Who would you nominate to be your POY? Shall we name our Feminist of the Year?