Sanford Lab designated as historic physics site

This photo, taken about 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 Sanford Underground Research Facility, which now uses the space in the former mine, has been designated as a historic site in physics by the American Physical Society. Photo courtesy of the Sanford Underground Research Facility

LEAD — The American Physical Society (APS) announced it has designated the Sanford Underground Research Facility as one of two historic sites in physics.

The other, Morgan State University in Baltimore, Maryland, is recognized as the birthplace of the National Society of Black Physicists.

The APS Historic Sites Initiative works to increase public awareness of noteworthy physics-related events and discoveries. Each year, APS chooses a select number of member-nominated sites to be formally recognized, using a number of criteria to select the sites, including significant contributions of the site or an individual to the advancement of physics on a national or international level.

“Ray Davis’ work to unlock the mysteries of neutrinos has served as an inspiration to neutrino researchers for more than five decades,” said Mike Headley, executive director of the South Dakota Science and Technology Authority, which manages SURF. “His legacy lives on in experiments around the world and in our efforts to educate the next generation of scientists and engineers. We are honored and proud to receive this designation.”

For nearly three decades, Davis counted neutrinos from the sun on the 4,850 Level of the Homestake Mine (now the Sanford Underground Research Facility). And for nearly three decades he consistently saw just one-third the number of neutrinos he expected to see. Where others may have admitted defeat, Davis continued counting every neutrino that collided with atoms in his 100,000-gallon tank of dry-cleaning fluid.

A chemist from Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York, Davis’ methodic approach to understanding neutrinos forever changed physics and earned Davis a share of the Nobel Prize in Physics.

“I am delighted to hear that Ray’s ‘cave’ has achieved this significant honor,” said Anna Davis, widow of Ray Davis, in an email. “That hole in the ground in South Dakota was the center of his life for many, many years. Although he was also an enthusiastic sailor on Long Island’s Great South Bay, he told our son Roger in his very last years, ‘Boating is fine, but it’s thin soup compared to neutrinos!’”

Today, the 4850 Level of the Sanford Lab is home to several international experiments. The depth of the facility shields sensitive technology from cosmic rays, making it an ideal location to study particle physics and astrophysics, as well as other disciplines in the sciences. Long before it became the United States’ deepest underground research laboratory, the Homestake Gold Mine was the site of Davis’ solar neutrino project.

“The experiment was an extraordinary achievement, involving painstaking observations in a 100,000-gallon tank, deep underground, extracting and counting argon atoms,” said Caltech science historian Diana L. Kormos-Buchwald, Chair of the APS Historic Sites Committee. “Davis and his collaborators demonstrated that nuclear reactions powered the Sun and provided the first evidence that electron neutrinos created in the Sun arrived at the Earth having transformed in flavor.”

The citation for the Sanford Lab reads:

“From 1962 to 1994, Raymond Davis Jr. built and operated the first successful detector for solar neutrinos using John N. Bahcall’s theoretical model and working with William A. Fowler, Maurice Goldhaber, and numerous engineers and crew members on the 4850 Level of the Homestake Mine—now the Davis Campus at the Sanford Underground Research Facility. The result of Davis’s observations, just one third the theoretical expected flux, led to fundamental advances in particle physics and astrophysics. For his work, Davis received a share of the 2002 Nobel Prize in Physics, along with Masatoshi Koshiba for his research into the detection of cosmic neutrinos.”

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