Taking physics to new frontiers

Not only physicists but the general public were excited by the announcement this July that the elusive Higgs boson (God particle) had been discovered

Every field of scientific endeavour requires role models who are inspirational, visionary and exude boundless energy, extreme passion and infectious enthusiasm. Professor Maria Spiropulu, world-renowned experimental physicist and graduate of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, is one of those individuals. She may have been born near the placid waters of Lake Kastoria but there is nothing tranquil about Maria and her quest to unlock the Universe’s secrets.

When not teaching at Caltech (California University of Technology), Maria can be found in the labs of CERN (European Organisation for Nuclear Research) in Geneva analysing the latest collision data from the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the world’s most powerful atom smasher. Her research team played a pivotal role in detecting the elusive Higgs boson, dubbed the ‘God particle’ by mainstream media.

This discovery, along with the possibility of running the LHC at even higher energy levels, has catapulted particle physics into a new era. All sorts of research possibilities abound. Unanswered questions concerning the nature of black holes, dark matter, new dimensions and supersymmetry might be within physicists’ grasp. ND: How large is your group working on CERN projects? MS: There are about 40 of us including engineers working on CERN projects. ND: Can you describe the scenes and emotions of your CERN colleagues when the LHC collision results came through this year? It has been escalation since day 1 of taking data at 7 TeV (and this year 8 TeV the highest energy ever achieved).

We were very confident we would have discoveries at the LHC. Nature had it coming for us. The signal of a Higgs-like particle grew more and more in the past year. When it reached a level above noise that mathematically would even convince the most sceptical and hard-nosed of our colleagues in the field and other fields of science, we declared “eureka”. The emotion is still on the incline since we expect more discoveries. ND: Before the LHC was switched on, many doomsayers were campaigning against its inauguration claiming it would lead to the creation of black holes that would swallow up the planet, did you ever have any concerns? MS: On the one hand the creation of black holes and other apocalypse-type phenomena is perfect movie material playing on hypothetical fears, but on the other hand there were never any true concerns as a complete ‘environment protection’ scientific study was carried out to verify LHC safety of operations. Even if micro-black holes were to be created in the LHC, not only would they disintegrate instantly but they would provide opportunities in understanding gravity and the dynamics of space-time.

ND: Why did you choose physics as a career path? What were some of your earlier influences? MS: I was lucky to grow up surrounded by books that nurtured curiosity, questioning and imagination and good teachers and especially a mother and father that wanted me to reach the stars at the edge of the universe. ND: What advice do you have for high school students contemplating physics as a career option? Well, as one of the mentors and friends I admire hugely, Prof. David Gross of UCSB and KITP, said “physics is what physicists do” and today physicists can and do pretty much everything (technology, computer science, biophysics, mathematical modelling, engineering, economics, etc). Choosing to be trained as a physicist is very ‘ergonomic’ in the competitive fast changing and IT dominated 21st century world.

I said recently in a meeting in Monterey, California that “physics is the consciousness of mathematics and the soul of technology”. I stick by that. For the more compulsive of us “doing physics research”, it is also a (perhaps quirky) way of life and synonymous to solving big problems that have an impact both in practical terms and intellectual ones. ND: In researching this topic, I was pleasantly surprised to come across several high profile Greek female physicists in senior roles. What do you attribute this to, as I contrast this to Australia where physics departments are still very much male domains? Well, indeed, Italy, Spain, Greece, South America : a lot of the these countries have a constant rich line of supply of remarkable women scientists, I suspect richer compared to the North American and possibly Australian numbers of undergraduate majors in science.

It is a matter of high stats already at the undergraduate level. I guess these cultures do not discourage females from following whatever subject they like. Now, I’ll give you as an example of success. The woman who leads my competitor experiment at the LHC, ATLAS, is Fabiola Gianotti of Italy. She is the boss of an experiment of around 3000 people, mostly men. I am a big fan of hers. The chair of the Collaboration Board of my experiment (CMS) is Teresa Rodrigo, of Spain. I am big fan of hers also. It does take some real guts to do the job they do. And the list goes on: you will immediately recognize the name Lisa Randall. I can give you right off the top of my head in less than a minute 10 names of powerful women in my field that also have powerful positions and are recognized internationally.

Nevertheless the gender thing is tricky with sciences still. Recently there were studies mentioned in the media on the gender bias in sciences, even with respect to salary levels. It takes effort and time and a lot of will to improve things. This is because the whole gender saga is cultural and sociological and the challenges are due to deeply rooted norms and biases upon which societies are built and have functioned for a very long time. I note this used to be the situation in other areas too, not only science; violinists up until recently for example were mostly men – the successful ones were really only men. Now in most orchestras you see as many as half of the violinists being women, and some with successful solo careers even. ND: Being on the edge of major discoveries, it would be impossible not to be possessed by your work. Can someone in your position ever have even a semblance of work-life balance? I can imagine your family being extremely supportive.

Do you have an understanding partner? It’s not easy. One can and should have a balanced life-work situation (I teach this to my students and fellows) but the realisation of what this means exactly may never come, or may arrive later in life. My family and friends have been very supportive…and frustrated with my work hours and demanding travel patterns (Geneva-LA is not an easy commute). My brother is a yacht captain and has been travelling the seas, so my parents find it tough to deal with all the moving pieces. As to my partner, he is a physicist so we both struggle with each other’s schedules.

ND: What does Maria Spiropulu do to chill out, relax, to get away from it all? What are your escapisms? MS: Not really escapisms but complimentary fun beyond the intensity and demands of research: reading, music, theatre, opera, movies, strategy video games, sports – like everyone else! ND: Any plans to visit Australia in the near future? MS: I just sent one of my graduate students and one post-doc to the ICHEP (International Conference on High Energy Physics) meeting in Melbourne this July. I wish to visit Australia but no concrete plans any time soon. I am aware of the vibrant and extended Greek community there. ND: Maria thanks for your time, keep up the splendid work. You are an inspiration to all of us and we would love to see you in Australia one day.