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IU physicist's idea puts women in control at CERN

Thanks to a successful proposal made by Indiana University senior research scientist Pauline Gagnon, the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) on March 8 marked International Women's Day by staffing all control rooms of the world's largest physics laboratory with women.

ATLAS Gagnon

Pauline Gagnon in front of ATLAS, a device for the Large Hadron Collider that she helped build

Print-Quality Photo

In addition to originating the idea, Gagnon, a senior research scientist in the IU College of Arts and Sciences' Department of Physics, also coordinated the effort that will mean the accelerators and detectors of the biggest physics lab in the world will all be run primarily by women. On the day itself, CERN had live images of the various control rooms and video clips of women talking about this event plus other material. CERN, located near Geneva, Switzerland, is perhaps best known as the home of the Large Hadron Collider.

Gagnon and other scientists from IU work on the ATLAS experiment at CERN. Gagnon is also founder of the ATLAS Women's Network.

ATLAS is a particle physics experiment at the Large Hadron Collider searching for new discoveries in the head-on collisions of protons of extraordinarily high energy. ATLAS will learn about the basic forces that have shaped the universe since the beginning of time and that will determine its fate. Among the possible unknowns are the origin of mass, extra dimensions of space, unification of fundamental forces, and evidence for dark matter candidates in the universe.

The idea to celebrate the accomplishments of women in this highly technical field was warmly embraced. Chiara Mariotti, a scientist who is helping to coordinate the event, said, "When I first came, 20 years ago, we (women) were very few. What we really want to accomplish is to give a positive image, to say to the young girls that they can do physics. The more women there are, the more natural it becomes to have women around and in important positions."

Trends are encouraging for these efforts: CERN"s records show that among ATLAS physicists under 50, women account for 21.3 percent, almost double the fraction of women in the population over 50.

"At CERN, and in particle physics the world over, talent is the only criterion that counts," said CERN Director General Rolf Heuer. "Gender, race and religion have no part to play in finding the right person for the job."

This article was originally published on March 5, 2010.