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Dr. Davis Earle

Biographical information:

Born in Carbonear, Newfoundland, Dr. Davis Earle followed his undergraduate degree at Memorial University (B.Sc., 1958) with a M.Sc. at the University of British Columbia in 1960. In 1959, he was awarded the Rhodes Scholarship and completed his D.Phil. at Oxford in 1964. From there, he moved to Chalk River Laboratories of Atomic Energy of Canada and began a long career of contribution to experimental nuclear physics. His career took a different turn in 1984 when he joined a group of fellow scientists planning what would become the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory (SNO). The intent was to measure solar neutrinos using heavy water. This required an initial feasibility study and, once feasibility had been established, the development of a major funding proposal. Dr. Earle was a key figure in both these aspects of the project so that, when funding came in 1990, he became the project's associate director.

He then undertook responsibility for construction of what was the equivalent of a 10-story subterranean building and of ensuring that the structure was ultra-clean - that the radioactivity was reduced to levels until then unachieved. The same demands were made of the massive acrylic sphere which had to hold $300-million of heavy water and is the crucial aspect of neutrino detection. Those demands were met and SNO's work proceeded to receive international regard; to be viewed as among the most significant recent scientific discoveries and contributing to a better understanding of the universe.

Dr. Earle is also noted for his capacity to communicate scientific findings and has long been viewed by his colleagues as a scientific ambassador to the wider community.

Oration honouring Dr. Davis Earle
Given by Dr. Annette Staveley, Deputy public orator

I ask you to observe this man who has today re-entered the orbit of Newfoundland and Labrador after traveling through many intellectual and global spheres.

Dr. Davis Earle, distinguished experimental nuclear physicist, inspiring scientific ambassador, and member of a prominent mercantile family in Newfoundland and Labrador, first saw the light of day in Carbonear. His boyhood interest in the properties of the universe first sparked by the sun and the stars shining across the waters of Conception Bay. The intensity of that interest was nurtured and directed in the science laboratories at Memorial University where he learned about the laws of nature and where he would begin a career trajectory that led him to redefine the relationship between the central star in our universe, the sun, and ourselves. The desire to understand and to express truths about the sun's energy and power has long been the goal of humankind. Metaphysical poets, as well as physicists, have struggled to find the language to convey the reality of the universe. John Donne chose figurative language to rebuke the unruly sun for penetrating his mistress' chamber and interrupting his pleasure. The lover claimed he could slow down and control the sun's rays, saying:

Thy beams, so reverend, and strong
Why shouldst thou think?
I could eclipse and cloud them with a wink,

Dr. Davis Earle and his team of scientists, as passionate about science as John Donne was about his mistress, knew that it took more than the blink of an eye to slow down, capture and measure the billions of particles generated from the sun's core. Scientists gave these particles the affectionate Italian name of neutrinos, meaning "little neutral ones", perhaps recalling the Italian poet, Dante, who said:

L'amor che muove il sole el'atre stelle.
(Love moves the sun and the other stars).

An audience of the uninitiated might think that the word "neutrinos" refers to a nutritious chocolate bar for aging baby-boomers, and to the uninitiated, the language used in the world of particle physics seems similarly confusing. The terms hadrons, leptons, muons and quarks sound more like the characters in Tolkein's Lord of the Rings than words used to express the fundamental realities of our cosmos.

But believe me, Mr. Chancellor, at this very moment five million of these high energy solar neutrinos are passing through every square centimetre of your body, undetected. Indeed, there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy. Poets may measure reality in images, but Dr. Davis Earle knew that nuclear scientists needed more than metaphor to understand the 30-year-old mystery of how to detect and measure neutrinos and discover why there was a discrepancy between those generated at the sun's core and those arriving at our planet. Yet, I must say, Mr. Chancellor, that the scheme dreamed up by Dr. Earle and his team to build a subterranean observatory to find out what happened to the missing neutrinos seemed a paradoxical way to solve this mystery. It does seem to come more from the literary realm of Gothic fantasy and science fiction than science fact.

He proposed to erect a 10-storey building, in an abandoned nickel mine in Sudbury, to house a massive sphere filled with $300-million worth of heavy water, under a mile of Norite rock. Dr. Earle initiated and sought funding for this underground "window on the sun." Yet, even in the world of practical scientists there was a Providence working in mysterious ways. For another member of Dr. Davis Earle's graduating class of '58 at Memorial University, one Arthur May, was on the granting council that accepted Dr. Earle's proposal. Thus began a whole new era in solar physics and the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory became one of the great wonders of the world.

From these imaginings and connections, this world-class Canadian observatory now produces results acknowledged as among the most significant discoveries in science in recent years. The scientific achievements generated by the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory are of the same calibre of pioneering work in particle physics that has already been awarded Nobel Prizes. We now understand how the sun is powered and that the missing neutrinos long thought to be massless, have masses. The Standard Model of particle physics, up to this point in time extraordinarily successful, has now been modified to accommodate this dramatic discovery.

The metaphysical poet, Andrew Marvell, in his lengthy, wordy, poem, To His Coy Mistress, urged his reluctant lady to consummate their love as quickly as possible because he could not control the sun nor make time stand still, but through the work of Dr. Davis Earle and his fellow scientists, not only do we know more about the processes at the sun's core but we also know what makes it run. In physics an equation is worth a thousand words, and the brevity and power of the equation E = mc2 speaks volumes about the nature of our world. Similarly, the equations coming out of the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory are leading us to the next level in our knowledge of the cosmos.

Though he has been fishing in different waters than his forebears, Dr. Earle using the same ingenuity, determination, energy and vision has enlightened and enriched our world. So I ask you to welcome home our native son whose intellect is focused on the stars, but whose feet are firmly grounded in Newfoundland and Labrador and award him Memorial's highest honour the degree of doctor of science, honoris causa.

Address to convocation

It is a great pleasure to me to receive this honorary degree from Memorial University. Particularly since Memorial is my alma mater. Years ago, many years ago, when I attended Memorial the university was basically just a single building on Parade St. and had an enrolment of about 900 students. When I ran for student council back then I knew almost all those who voted for me. In spite of that, I got elected. My sister, who is in attendance today, was a student in the education department, which was the biggest faculty. She claims it was her campaigning that got me elected. She might be right. She can be very persuasive.

Today I, first of all, wish to thank the Senate of Memorial University for selecting me for this degree and to thank the people who nominated me for consideration. I am sure I will never know all of those involved in that process. I have to say that it came as a bit of a surprise. I certainly am not a bright light in the scientific community and have usually been one of a team of people working on the projects in which I have participated. I can take credit for longevity on some of those projects and for a number of technical contributions that helped make them successful. A quality that has helped me during those years is perseverance and I like to think that is because I was brought up in Newfoundland where perseverance is a common trait.

My most recent project has been the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory or SNO project that we began 20 years ago and that has, recently, brought international recognition to Canada. At times there have been well over 50 scientists working on this project with funding from Canada, the United Sates and England. These kinds of science projects are becoming more and more common. As our knowledge base becomes broader and more precise, a more indepth examination is required. We now have large teams of specialists who must collaborate. It requires a very high degree of cooperation, sometimes difficult especially for scientists. Having a project with the acronym S N O or snow is great if you like puns, a low form of humour I'm told. Our scientists might be compared to snowflakes, not because they are flaky, which some of them are, but because they are all different. Each one is an individual. At a collaboration meeting when all these snowflakes get together we sometimes get, you can guess what's coming, a snowball with the resulting damage if it isn't kept in check. Keeping these snowballs under control and getting the most out of the collaboration is the job of the director and his associates and that can be a lot of fun. Working on projects like SNO has taught me the importance of working with snowflakes to make snowballs. Creativity and cooperation makes for big successes, great excitement and fun. You couldn't ask for a better job.

I might add that this project has been so successful that the federal government has recently granted us a Canadian Foundation for Innovation grant. This grant was topped up to $50 million by provincial grants and is being used to expand our scientific infrastructure in Sudbury to make room for other physics experiments; A great opportunity for graduating scientists to do their future research in Canada. Some naysayers claim we did a snow job on the funding agencies.

Maybe now is a good time to take a commercial break. I'm down to give a public lecture on the SNO project next Monday evening. There you will get details on one of the ways your tax dollars have been spent to better understand our universe. I don't mean to apologize for spending tax dollars on basic research, research that has no obvious applied benefits. Sometimes, years hence, a basic research project becomes the foundation of all kinds of benefits. Like semiconductor research which spawned transistors, integrated circuits and computers. Like the periodic table which, over 100 years ago, was a basic research project. It is now used by chemists for many practical applications. Like radiation research which spawned nuclear medicine, nuclear power and nuclear bombs. The last two are somewhat controversial which we won't debate here. Even if there are never applied benefits, basic research does help us understand our universe and ourselves better and make for a more civilized society. Things that mankind (or is it humankind) has always strived to attain. A developed country such as Canada must spend a portion of its GNP on basic research and the peer review approach used in Canada to select which projects get funded is the correct approach to select the best projects.

Next I wish to congratulate the students who are graduating today. You have achieved a great step forward and your parents, friends and teachers are very proud of you all. I'm sure many people have told you that you are at the threshold of a new phase in your lives, that great opportunities lie ahead, etc. All I saw in front of me at your age was a forest with no paths. But I was optimistic and enthusiastic so I charged into that forest. It was somewhat by chance that I ended up doing physics research for 40 years. When I was your age, with a B.Sc. from Memorial my father tried to get me to go to work for him in Carbonear. He was a bright light in the Newfoundland fishing industry back then. It was tempting and I'm sure it would have made for a very interesting life but I was not ready to go to work for my father and I needed to see a little more of Canada so I turned down his offer and went to British Columbia instead. Not because I had a compulsion to do physics research but rather to explore a bit. British Columbia led to England and then back to Canada. Only then did I settle into physics research, six years after my B.Sc.

As I said before, during my career my work environment and colleagues have made for a really great life. I shouldn't be using the past tense here. Like the fisherman in Carbonear who, when asked by the CFA tourist if he had lived in Carbonear all his life, replied "Nope! Not yet!" Like that fisherman, I hope my career isn't over yet.

The point I'm trying to get to is that by living in Canada and having a university degree I was free to do what I found interesting, to go where I wanted to and eventually to pursue projects that were of interest to me, to get funding to pay for the research, to collaborate with great people and to get paid a salary as well. These are all things that are now available to you as new graduates. It may be a little harder now then 45 years ago but if you know what you want to do, it can be done. Some of you may not have a long-range plan just yet and that's fine too. As I said, it was fine for me at your age. You should go with what you want to do for the short term as long as it interests you. The long-range plans will come later.

So, to summarize what I said, I suggest that you choose to do things that you are interested in and enthusiastic about, that you associate with individuals that are different from you (snowflakes) and that you collaborate with them (form snowballs) to get the greatest satisfaction from your life. And most important, enjoy.