Car­bon­ear na­tive has ties to No­bel Prize win

The Compass - - EDITORIAL - BY JOSH PEN­NELL TC ME­DIA The Tele­gram

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.

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