Big Man, Tiny Particles, Many Faces

By Dick Bourgeois-Doyle


I am certain that staff in Ministerial offices today are motivated by service to their country, are open-minded, and hold noble ambitions. But thirty-four years ago when I worked in that capacity, I had a narrow view of my role and divided the world into three spheres: (1) things that would help get my minister re-elected; (2) things that might help; and (3) things that interfered and took time away from pursuits (1) and (2).

Consequently I writhed with impatience when one day in late 1985 the Minister’s agenda featured a long meeting with a group of physicists. They wanted to brief my boss on the importance of some funny sounding subatomic particles. The background note for the meeting suggested that the scientists weren't sure whether these things even existed and that if they did, well they “just pass through the earth without leaving a trace” anyway.

This was clearly category three (3) - type work.

When we met the scientists, they confirmed the ephemeral nature of these particles and explained that, by the way, “we need tons of heavy water, a hole in the ground thousands of metres deep, and, oh yeah, tens of millions of dollars.”

A man with a Scottish accent did a lot of the talking. I listened. But from my uninformed stance, he might as well have been describing the threat of errant cosmic rays and wearing a tinfoil hat.

The minister seemed skeptical and asked, “Well, what will Canada get for this investment?”

The Scottish man said, “Minister if we move quickly, we will win the Nobel Prize.”

Then I thought, “maybe this delegation is really here to lobby for the decriminalization of marijuana,” and wondered if I should say something to wrap the meeting up. Mercifully, I did not open my mouth.

But a new backbench Member of Parliament at the meeting did speak up.

He not only displayed an instant and sincere appreciation of the science, he also invoked experience related to mining and engineering and posed questions about the technical challenges that construction of an underground observatory would entail. He mused, nevertheless, that what seemed like hurdles were really great opportunities to push Canadian engineering and technology as well as its science to another level of excellence.

As the meeting ended, the MP declared himself a supporter of the project and offered his help.

I was taken aback, but, again happily, I kept my tongue. The name of the project under discussion was, of course, the now-Nobel-Prize winning Sudbury Neutrino Observatory (SNO).

That MP’s name was William Charles Winegard.

I thought about that day in the boardroom on Parliament Hill this past month with news that Dr. Winegard had passed away at the age of 94. As tributes from many sources attest, he was a remarkable Canadian, who signed up for the military at the age of seventeen and served in World War II bouncing over icy, U-boat infested seas as the youngest officer in the Royal Canadian Navy. After the war, he earned a doctorate in metallurgy at the University of Toronto and launched his passion-filled career in academia and science. I first met him at the University of Guelph in the early 1970s when he was building that unique institution as its second president. He met thousands of students during his eight years at UofG, but somehow remembered me a decade later when our paths crossed again in Ottawa. He spoke highly of me and promoted my career. But I always assumed that he would do the same for anyone whose resumé carried the word “Guelph,” the place he loved and would serve in Parliament from 1984 to 1993.

In the decade that followed that meeting with the SNO advocates, I came to know the scientist from Scotland well and grew to regard the group promoting the observatory as heroes of Canadian science. Their campaign was not an easy endeavor despite the project’s palpable merit. A major setback came in 1987 when the American champion and key scientific resource Herb Chen of the University of California at Irvine died of leukemia.

Still, by then, enough scientific evidence and international testimony had been amassed to confirm that an underground observatory equipped with heavy water offered a unique means of addressing what was termed “the Solar Neutrino Problem.” A major issue in the scientific world, the “Problem” arose from the discrepancy between the neutrinos detected on earth and what was projected by the reigning Standard Model used in solar particle physics.

A complex matter and esoteric to many people, the issue nevertheless excited scientists and the opportunity to address it inspired many around the world.

Yet it seemed like our country did not know what to do with an idea and science enterprise this big. The routine posture in the face of lobbying for science was to direct the proponents to peer review and established granting processes. But the SNO project and its intimidating scope had been turned down twice by Canadian grant committees notwithstanding attestations from other countries.

The scientists felt driven to knock on every door and this led them into years of meetings with government officials at all levels and even with people like me.

Many of those doors stayed closed and some even slammed shut. But slowly progress came with more and more commitments. INCO deserves credit for its immediate willingness to make Creighton Mine available, the Sudbury Regional Government and Science North promoted the project vigorously, and AECL with Ontario Hydro helped with the essential loan of heavy water valued at some $300 million. The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) and the National Research Council (NRC) funded the effort with $10 million each, and international partners kicked in. The Ontario Provincial Government was a hard sell, but came up with $7.6 million.

Still, around $15 million remained. Deadlines loomed and nail-biting became commonplace among Canadian physicists. Then, in 1990, the Government of Canada announced full funding for the remaining costs. I know it was more than coincidence that the announcement came from the new Minister of Science, the first person to carry this title, Dr. William Winegard.

For many this was only the beginning of the story. The construction and commissioning of the observatory was, as Dr. Winegard had predicted, a challenge that drove innovation and required the ingenuity and a wide range of expertise. Beyond the issue of working in a mine shaft 2,070 metres underground, the team needed to build a novel spherical detector containing 1,000 metric tons of that heavy water as well as some 10,000 photomultipliers. This research project by necessity called for intellectual contributions from hundreds of individuals. It was also a race.

In the quest to solve the solar neutrino problem, SNO was in a real sense in competition with the Super-Kamiokande facility in Japan, and the Super-K team did take a lead with important discoveries in the 1990s. But when the first scientific results from the SNO experiment were published in 2001, it was obvious that something incremental and truly significant had been achieved. SNO made it clear that neutrinos oscillate and, in effect, change flavours (electron, muon, or tau) as they travel. This and other findings explained the discrepancies, supported the theory, and renewed confidence in the Standard Model which, in turn, gave the whole SNO enterprise its immense importance.

Many, many institutions and people thus deserve credit for the success of the Sudbury neutrino project. Dr. Winegard would be just one. Certainly, the institutional heroes include Queen’s and its university collaborators as well as leadership at NSERC and NRC who carved funds out of tight budgets and took a risk. Too many people and organizations to name for sure.

In fact, when the SNO Director Dr. Art McDonald headed for Sweden to accept the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physics, he noted the many authors on the scientific papers related to the Prize and told MacLean’s magazine that, in a very Canadian way, he wanted to “bring 273 people” along with him to Stockholm.

This might be a modest number.

We held an event to celebrate the SNO experiment a few years ago at NRC with Dr. McDonald in attendance. Afterward, the stage was filled with people from the audience who had been identified during the formalities as having helped by solving technical issues, seeking funds, participating in the science, or otherwise contributing to SNO.

For this reason, I am thinking of all these faces, the great SNO collaboration, persistence, and vision as I now reflect on Dr. Winegard’s life and that day in 1985 when I mercifully kept my mouth shut.

Date modified: