Syracuse University Magazine

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Marina Artuso

Poetry and Particle Physics

Marina Artuso has spent decades devoted to beauty. This may not seem unusual for a woman born in Venice, raised and educated in Milan, and in love with poetry and art. But Artuso is a physicist, and beauty—with a small b—is the name of a quark. “It holds the key to a lot of things we are trying to understand, about the theory of fundamental particles, and why the universe is made of matter and not a combination of matter and antimatter. It has a lot of facets,” says Artuso, a faculty member of the high-energy particle physics group in the College of Arts and Sciences who has studied beauty, charm, and other less fancifully named subatomic particles since 1988. “So I guess you can say, it is a life devoted to beauty. But I still love poetry.” 

A Fellow of the American Physical Society and an advisor to the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation, Artuso is an international leader in developing, designing, and building detectors for elementary particle physics experiments. She is among more than 700 scientists from 15 countries collaborating on a beauty quark (b) experiment at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, near Geneva, Switzerland. The LHCb experiment—which aims to explain why nature prefers matter to antimatter, among other things—is one of several ongoing experiments at the LHC. The world’s largest (17 miles in circumference) and most powerful particle accelerator, the LHC sends two beams of protons speeding in opposite directions inside the circular accelerator to collide at very high energy and near the speed of light, effectively replicating conditions that existed one hundredth of a billionth of a second after the big bang. Experiments at the LHC are probing key unresolved questions in physics, including the nature of mass, the existence of dark matter and energy, and the possibility of hidden dimensions.

Artuso was there for the LHC’s big pop and fizzle in 2008, when a faulty joint led to a minor explosion and a major setback for the LHC, which was shut down a year for repairs. She was also there in November 2009 when the mammoth particle accelerator came back online, and has been collecting data since that may help explain the origins of the universe.

According to Artuso, she took a “bit of a winding way” to get there and here. As a girl, she was interested in art, nature, literature, and science, studying the humanities before switching to engineering at the Politecnico di Milano, a move considered odd for a woman at the time. She stuck with it, despite the “funny comments” she and a few other female students endured in lecture halls teeming with young men. Under the guidance of a professor, she gravitated toward physics, working with him on an early experiment at CERN. Eventually, she headed to Northwestern University to earn a doctorate in physics to complement her engineering background with some deeper knowledge of physics.

Searching for connections between disparate things—space and time, matter and antimatter, the micro- and macrocosm—keeps Artuso passionate about physics. Then, too, as an experimentalist, she loves to build exquisitely sensitive detectors that offer shadowy evidence of beauty—not the particle itself, but its decays and effects on other particles, the only proof beauty exists. She’s committed to bringing undergraduates into the lab to do research, and advocates for women in the disciplines of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Artuso is co-director of Women in Science and Engineering at SU, which hosted an international symposium this fall on the status of women faculty in STEM. “All over the world, women in the science and technology disciplines are still working toward equality,” Artuso says. “I can tell you, we still have work to do.” —Jim Reilly

 

Photo by John Dowling