The effort to create a National Underground Science Laboratory received a
major endorsement during the weekend from the National Research Council’s
Committee on the Physics of the Universe.

The NRC committee stressed the need for a deep laboratory in a report
presented Sunday at an American Physical Society national meeting in
Albuquerque, N.M. The committee’s chairman, University of Chicago physicist
Michael Turner, noted that such a laboratory would allow the United States
to leap to the head of international efforts in underground science. The
report calls for the National Science Foundation and federal Department of
Energy to cooperate in financing experiments the laboratory would house.

A proposal pending before the NSF, formulated last year by a national
consortium of scientists led by the University of Washington, recommends a
national underground lab be created at the recently closed Homestake Gold
Mine in South Dakota.

In its 125-year history, Homestake became the deepest gold mine in the world
and once was the largest in the Western Hemisphere. The mine closed at the
end of 2001, but the national consortium continued to advocate a plan to
make it the home of the National Underground Science Laboratory.

The shafts and tunnels that run more than 1=BD miles deep make the mine ideal
for experiments in a broad range of scientific disciplines, including
physics, geology, cosmology and even ecology, said Wick Haxton, a UW physics

“I’m really amazed at the people coming out of the woodwork who want to do
underground science. There is so much technology that needs this kind of
protective environment,” said Haxton, who heads the UW’s Institute of
Nuclear Theory.

In 2001, following an NSF suggestion, the UW institute appointed a
nationwide committee of prominent scientists to study possibilities for a
national underground laboratory. In March 2001, the panel recommended
building such a lab at Homestake, in the town of Lead (pronounced leed) in
the Black Hills of western South Dakota. The committee chose Homestake
because of its existing facilities and because there would be fewer risks in
developing an operating mine. It also recommended an alternate site, Mount
San Jacinto near Palm Springs, Calif., in case some obstacle prevented use
of Homestake.

One potential obstacle was recently overcome when President Bush signed a
bill that established conditions for the transfer of the mine to the
proposed laboratory. The legislation limits liability for future
environmental claims on the 144 acres of the mine that Barrick Gold Corp. is
considering donating to the laboratory.

Barrick, based in Toronto, Canada, acquired Homestake last year. The vast
majority of the mine – including an open-pit surface mine, a milling
facility and a tailing pond – all would remain under Barrick’s control and
would not be part of the proposed laboratory.

A deep-underground environment is ideal for an array of scientific work,
said John F. Wilkerson, also a UW physics professor and a member of the team
proposing the underground lab. Besides a broad range of basic science –
including experiments to measure neutrinos, subatomic particles created by
the sun and by more distant stars; to detect invisible dark matter that
pervades the universe; and to test the stability of matter – the laboratory
also will house important applied science activities. Examples include
facilities to monitor underground nuclear weapons testing and to develop
materials that must be shielded from cosmic rays during their manufacture.

“There are existing rooms at Homestake where we could put experiments right
now,” Wilkerson said. “There are people who would like to go in there in the
next month and start experiments.”

Homestake – which helped build the fortune that William Randolph Hearst
turned into a national newspaper chain – grew out of an 1870s gold rush. It
became home to the world’s first neutrino detector, built in 1965 by Ray
Davis Jr., then with Brookhaven National Laboratory. That facility, which
uses 100,000 gallons of chlorine in a chamber carved out nearly a mile deep,
continues to operate today.

But in the last four years, much larger observatories in Japan and Canada
(both involving UW researchers) have produced groundbreaking research that
demonstrated for the first time that neutrinos – subatomic particles that
bombard the Earth by the billions each day – have mass. That finding has had
a major impact on researchers working, for instance, for a greater
understanding of gravity, how the sun works and the so-called missing mass
of the universe. Now physicists are devising techniques to figure out just
exactly how much mass a neutrino has.

There are scientific questions across many disciplines that can be tackled
at a national underground lab, Haxton said.

“One good reason for having a national center is that you get a lot of
creative people from different fields working together,” he said. “They can
discuss these problems over lunch, as well as in the lab.”


For more information, contact Haxton at (206) 685-2397, (206) 685-3360 or; or Wilkerson at (206) 616-2744 or

During the American Physical Society meeting in Albuquerque, which ends
Tuesday, Wilkerson can be reached via cellular phone at (206) 399-5606 The
press room at the conference can be reached at (505) 338-2513.