Physicist Fabiola Gianotti is the second woman shortlisted for Time’s POY

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? 

Photo via Time

SYREETA MCFADDEN is a Brooklyn based writer, photographer and adjunct professor of English. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, The Guardian, BuzzFeed, The Huffington Post, Religion Dispatches and Storyscape Journal. She is the managing editor of the online literary magazine, Union Station, and a co-curator of Poets in Unexpected Places. You can follow her on Twitter @reetamac.

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  • Inquisitive Bibliophile

    Shout-out to another runner-up: Malala Yousafzai.

    • Syreeta

      Word! Duly shouted - (small mention but certainly we can say so much more!)

  • Sarah

    Particle physicist here, and I have to say that it isn’t true that there is gender parity in my field, though it is certainly true that many in physics believe, in the face of much evidence to the contrary, that there is no bias against women. These sentences from the article:

    “Physics is a male-dominated field, and the assumption is that a woman has to overcome hurdles and face down biases that men don’t.

    But that just isn’t so. Women in physics are familiar with this misconception and acknowledge it mostly with jokes.”

    are making many of us see red, actually. First of all, women make up about 10 – 15 % of the ATLAS experiment of which Fabiola is spokesperson (and I’m a member). While there are incredible female role models and leaders at the top of the physics chain, such a small percentage really doesn’t represent parity. But this study by a group at Yale pretty firmly established bias among science faculty, including physicists, according to gender. It’s real, even if it isn’t intentional. There is nothing magical about particle physics that makes us immune to bias:

    Thanks for the shout-out to the Higgs, and to Fabiola! For the record, she is a truly awesome physicist and a gifted leader, fully deserving of the kudos she is receiving.

    • Millicent

      I agree with sarah, i’m delighted to see a woman scientist on the short list, but I don’t see any parity for women in science, particularly in the physical sciences. The leaky pipeline has not been plugged. I’ve moved from being a physics undergrad where I was 1 of 6 women in a class of 35 to being part of the majority amongst my PhD classmates in a geoscience program. But the number of female faculty and the number of women I see working at the national labs where I do research is despairingly small.