Italian physicist Fabiola Gianotti has been elected the new head of CERN

First woman to head CERN

Italian physicist Fabiola Gianotti has become the first female head of CERN, the particle physics research centre behind the discovery of the Higgs boson.

The cutting-edge research centre housing the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) – the most powerful particle collider in the world – has thus become the first top global scientific institution in the field selecting a female leader.

Gianotti, a University of Milan graduate, led the team behind the Atlas project – one of the two major experiments that contributed to the discovery of the Higgs boson in 2012.

Her appointment was decided at a meeting of the centre's ruling council, made up of representatives of its 20 member states, a CERN announcement said. It remains to be formalised at a further meeting in December. Gianotti is expected to take office in January 2016.

The 52-year-old researcher will replace Rolf Heuer, who led the centre through the initial teething problems of the LHC operations including the magnet quench incident that occurred shortly after the machine was turned on for the first time in 2008.

Under the leadership of Gianotti, who has worked at the Switzerland-based research centre since 1987, the scientific teams will continue their quest to better understand the origins of our universe by simulating conditions that occurred in its earliest moments.

LHC is expected to restart operations early next year after a major upgrade that should allow the machine to operate with double its original power, smashing particles at nearly the speed of light, creating multiple little Big Bangs.

"CERN is a centre of scientific excellence and a source of pride and inspiration for physicists from all over the world, a cradle for technology and innovation, and a shining concrete example of scientific cooperation and peace," Gianotti said.

The machine was primarily built to find the Higgs boson – a theoretical particle predicted by British particle physicist Peter Higgs in 1964. The particle is believed to hold the key to understanding the formation of the original energy field that may have triggered the formation of the physical universe, converting matter into mass.

When collisions in the LHC are resumed, scientists will be looking for evidence helping to resolve other major questions including the dark matter thought to make up about a quarter of the universe and dark energy accounting for some 70 per cent.

The discovery of the Higgs boson brought a Nobel Prize in 2013 for Higgs and his Belgian counterpart Francois Englert, who worked on the same idea with two other colleagues in the early 1960s.

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