Carbonear native has ties to Nobel Prize win
There’s something new under the sun or, in the very least, something new known about living under it, and it’s due in part to a Newfoundlander.
Davis Earle, a Carbonear native and physicist, played an integral role in building the laboratory that led to the winning of the 2015 Nobel Prize for physics.
To be clear, Earle didn’t win the Nobel prize. Arthur McDonald, a professor emeritus at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont, did. But Earle was a longstanding part of a more than 20-year-long project that led to the win.
“My head swelled up,” he says from his home in Ontario. “We all know that this was a team effort.”
The story of Earle’s connection to the Nobel win starts in 1984. That’s when plans first began to build a unique laboratory that would become the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory (SNO).
“The real accomplishment was boldly going where no man has gone before to develop this laboratory,” says Earle.
The laboratory was built two kilometres underground in an active mine - Vale Inco’s Creighton Mine in Sudbury, Ont. This was necessary because the group was trying to study particles from the sun known as neutrinos.
In order to isolate those particles, extreme steps had to be taken to make sure only those types of particles got through. It took six years to work out how to do the experiment and another seven after that to build it.
“I was right in there from the beginning,” says Earle.
During the construction he was the technical associate director. Nobel Prize winner, McDonald, came onboard full time as director in 1989. After it was finished, data was collected for 10 years.
What the data revealed was why a large portion of neutrinos known to form in the sun’s core could not be found at the surface. It came down to proving the idea that there are three types of neutrinos and earlier efforts to detect them were only finding one type.
Earle comes from a well known local family. His father was Guy Earle, who steered the SS Kyle back to shore on its final voyage after it struck an iceberg.
“My father tried to get me to join him in the codfish business in Carbonear, but I didn’t want to go work with my father at 20. I thought I needed to see bit of Canada,” he says.
His university career started at Memorial. He found engineering too easy and chemistry too hard. Physics was just right. After a master’s in British Columbia, he won a Rhodes Scholarship. The reality of a paying job loomed after such intellectal escapades and he started working at the laboratories of Chaulk River, Ont.
“The first decade was so so. I had a boss telling me what to do.”
Then the idea SNO came up.
“It was a great 20 to 30 years from there,” he says. “The journey was fantastic.”
The further understanding of the sun’s subatomic particles that secured the Nobel prize might well positively impact how people harness energy, but such justifications aren’t necessary, in Earle’s opinion.
“The argument that I like to use is to emphasize that this is basic research. What I mean by basic research is curiosity driven,” he says.
“Just knowledge. Now I’m not apologizing for that, because I can give you a dozen examples of basic research that decades later proved of value to mankind.”
In 2004, Earle was awarded an honorary doctor of science degree by MUN.
“That was really the icing on the cake for me. That was when I decided that with the few years I’ve got left I’ve got to
building do other things that I’m interested in,” he says.
At 77, Earle spends his time skiing in B.C and canoeing throughout the Northwest Territories. He’s come back home to kayak the bays of Newfoundland and hike the mountains of Gros Morne.
Despite the calculated distance he’s put between himself and physics, a discussion with Earle is still full of quotes from a scientist who can spin natural language around a complicated idea.
“Our bodies are empty space. I cannot emphasize how much empty space we are. It’s just the electromagnetic force that holds everything together,” he says.
Davis Earle recieves an honorary doctor of science degree from Memorial University in 2004.