APS designates Sanford Lab, Morgan State University as historic physics sites

On September 14, the American Physical Society (APS) announced it has designated Sanford Lab Underground Research Facility (SURF) one of two Historic Sites in physics for its role in neutrino research led by Ray Davis. The other, Morgan State University in Baltimore MD is recognized as the birthplace of the National Society of Black Physicists (NSBP).

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 4850 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.

Today, the 4850 Level of SURF 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.”

In December 1972, a group of friends, colleagues and former students gathered at Fisk University in Nashville to honor three prominent Black physicists: Halson Eagleson, Donald Edwards and John Hunter. Subsequent events, which also included scientific lectures and seminars, were held at Howard University in May 1975 and Morehouse College in April 1976. “These annual gatherings, which increasingly included both undergraduate and graduate students, grew in importance and significance, and led to the realization that a formal structure was needed to be effective in understanding, analyzing and resolving various issues confronting African American participation in physics,” said Ronald E. Mickens, Distinguished Fuller E. Callaway professor in the department of physics at Clark Atlanta University, who helped organize the events.

The organizers selected Morgan State University as the site of the following year’s event because of its large physics department and its proximity to other Historically Black Colleges and Universities and national research facilities, according to Mickens. The Society of Black Physicists was inaugurated there on April 28, 1977. The organization was later renamed the NSBP and has become the largest and most recognizable organization devoted to African American physicists.

The APS citation states, “On April 28, 1977, Morgan State University became the birthplace of the National Society of Black Physicists. Its founders sought to promote the professional well-being of African American physicists within society at large and within the international scientific community. They have successfully mentored young Black students to increase their representation in physics and technology. Their persistent professional devotion to inclusion has produced the largest national organization that actively supports African American physicists.”

“As an institution rooted in the marvels of discovery and enlightenment, Morgan State University has long served as a haven for the nation’s Black scientific community—as well as a top producer of African-American graduates with degrees in STEM,” said David K.Wilson, president of Morgan State University. “We are truly honored to be designated a Historic Site by the American Physical Society.”