50 years of deep discovery

This photo, taken nearly 50 years ago, shows a worker standing in the skeleton of Dr. Ray Davis’s Nobel Prize-winning solar neutrino experiment, which was housed nearly a mile below Lead in the then-active Homestake Gold Mine. The very same cavern is home to the Sanford Underground Research Facility’s (SURF) Large Underground Xenon (LUX) experiment today, which uses neutrinos to hunt for dark matter. SURF will celebrate 50 years of underground science in Lead this weekend with its eighth annual Neutrino Day. Photo courtesy of the Sanford Underground Research Facility

LEAD — With more than 140 years of history in gold mining, Lead’s legacy as a mining town is unassailable. But with 50 years of pioneering experimental science under its belt, one Nobel Prize in physics, and the largest collaborative high-energy physics experiment ever to land on U.S. soil under development at the Sanford Underground Research Facility (SURF), Lead’s set to go down in history for something much more important than the excavation of precious metal. Neutrino Day, SURF’s free science festival, will share the specifics of the town’s science legacy this weekend with science talks, tours, and more.

Fifty years ago Dr. Ray Davis began building an ambitious experiment deep in the bowels of the then-active Homestake Gold Mine. Davis sought to observe and define the characteristics of a curious, then purely theoretical particle, the solar neutrino. Traditional, earth-sourced, non-solar neutrinos had only very recently been discovered, in 1959, and that was with the help of a powerful surface level nuclear reactor, said Dr. Harry Nelson, professor and vice chair of the physics department at the University of California Santa Barbara and spokesperson for SURF’s Large Underground Xenon (LUX) experiment and the forthcoming LUX-ZEPLIN experiment, which study neutrino interactions to search for dark matter in the very same cavern that housed Davis’s historic experiment nearly one mile below the city of Lead.

“The whole technique (to hunt for neutrinos) was hardly 10 years old. Davis was already looking for a whole new type, coming from the sun. With a reactor the neutrino signal is so strong. It’s a puny little signal when you get down in that mine. As a professional scientist I look back and go, ‘wow, just wow,’” said Nelson.

Davis’s experiment at the Homestake Mine was successful, the first to detect and count solar neutrinos. This distinction earned Davis the Nobel Prize in physics in 2002. Davis’s experiment not only opened the doors for deep experimental science in the U.S., it also marked Lead as a premier location for sensitive high-energy physics experiments.

“It’s really kind of an interesting time to look at where we started 50 years ago with Ray Davis doing some of the earliest groundbreaking work studying neutrinos underground. We’re in a spot right now where the big Long Baseline Neutrino Facility (LBNF) and DUNE (Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment) are on the cusp of becoming a reality in the next few years,” said Mike Headley, executive director of the South Dakota Science and Technology Authority (SDSTA). “It’s really kind of a cool contract of this rich history of how things started, and we’re kind of in a similar situation with LBNF and DUNE getting its start. This will be one of the biggest experiments for the Lab into the future.”  

Let’s be frank, the science that goes on down at the Sanford Lab is very complicated — as complicated as it is important to furthering our understanding of how the universe was formed, how it works, and why it works the way it does. Correspondingly, public education and outreach is extremely important to officials at the Sanford Lab. And Neutrino Day is the centerpiece of that ongoing project.

To be able to touch roughly 1,000 people in one day with the science that we’re doing and all the activities at the Lab is amazing,” said Headley.

While technically referred to as Neutrino Day, the event spreads over two days, beginning with a concert at 5:30 p.m. at the Historic Homestake Opera House in Lead, in which students from Black Hills State University will perform an original chorale composition inspired by the Homestake Mine and the Sanford Lab.

Following the concert, Emily Graslie, writer and host of educational YouTube show “The Brain Scoop” and Chief Curiosity Correspondent at Chicago’s Field Museum will discuss the relationships between science and art, starting at 6:30 p.m. at the Homestake Opera House.

Saturday is filled to the brim with activities, tours, and lectures. Science talks from SURF scientists and other scientific luminaries run from 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Homestake Opera House.

Dr. Harry Nelson kicks off the day’s lectures with his 10 a.m. presentation on the search for dark matter at SURF and elsewhere, entitled “Touch the Dark.”

At 1:30, Dr. Steve Elliott, spokesperson for SURF’s Majorana experiment, will discuss observations connecting matter, antimatter, solar neutrinos and double beta decay with his presentation, “Neutrinos, Anti-Neutrinos and the Question: Why are We Here?”

At 3 p.m., keynote speaker Dr. Ray Jayawardhana, Dean of Science and a Professor of Physics and Astronomy at York University in Toronto, and author of "Neutrino Hunters," "Strange New Worlds," and "Star Factories," will discuss neutrinos, the value of neutrino-based research, and the cosmic implications of such research in his presentation, “Neutrino Hunters: Chasing a Ghostly Particle to Unlock Cosmic Secrets.”

A variety of activities are offered between 8:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. at the Sanford Lab, including:

— Tours of the Yates Shaft hoist-room (no open-toed shoes allowed).

— Emergency Rescue Team demonstrations and activities.

— Science demonstrations for kids by “Science Steve” Rokusek of South Dakota Public Broadcasting.

— Various hands-on activities with Black Hills State University South Dakota School of Mines and Technology.

— Opportunities to meet SURF scientists, engineers, technicians, and rescue team personnel.

— Solar Telescope informational by the Black Hills Astronomical Society.

— Waste Water Treatment Plant demonstrations.

Still more activities are planned up and down Lead’s Main Street from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., including:

— A vast array of educational exhibits at the recently opened Sanford Lab Homestake Visitor Center.

— Live, two-way video chats with scientists underground at SURF and at the Fermi National Accelerator Lab in Batavia, Illinois, at the visitor center.

— A look at the Rapid City Journey Museum’s GeoDome Planetarium, at the Homestake Opera House.

— Geology demonstrations on the visitor center’s observation deck.

— Free admission to the Black Hills Mining Museum.

— Additional activities for children of all ages in Manuel Brothers Park and at the Homestake Opera House.

All Neutrino Day events are free and open to the public.

The Historic Homestake Opera House is located at 313 W. Main St. in Lead. Activities at the Sanford Lab are located at 630 East Summit St. in Lead. The Sanford Lab Homestake Visitor Center is located at 160 W Main St. in Lead, and the Black Hills Mining Museum is located at 323 W Main St. in Lead.

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