Los Alamos National Laboratory

Los Alamos National Laboratory

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In Memoriam

Honoring Los Alamos National Laboratory Fellows and their contributions to the institution.

William Davis

William Davis

Los Alamos Guest Scientist, LANL Fellow and former Laboratory staff member, 91, of Los Alamos died April 5, 2017. Bill was born in Manchester, New Hampshire on December 22, 1925, to Chester T.C. Davis and Eleanor Scamman Davis. He attended the public schools, and enlisted in the wartime United States Navy the week he graduated from high school in 1943. His service took him to the rank of RT1c, and the Asiatic Pacific ribbon with 2 stars and the Philippine Liberation ribbon with one star. After the war he attended Tufts College and received the degree Bachelor of Science in Engineering summa cum laude. He then went to Johns Hopkins University and received the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in 1954. Bill was employed by the Los Alamos National Laboratory full time from 1954 to 1987, and then part time until the present. His assignment was to study the details of the processes in high explosives.

It’s been rumored that when asked why he came to the Laboratory, Davis said, “because I didn’t have to wear a suit!” Davis was a giant in the field of high-explosive research, who was never satisfied until every last detail of any of his experimental records was fully understood. Early in his career, his work led to a substantial improvement in resolution from rotating mirror smear cameras, in its day, the high-resolution optical diagnostic used to study detonation. Working together with “Bud” Winslow, Davis developed the first, high-speed, electro-optical framing camera. When the Los Alamos high-energy x-ray facility, PHERMEX, first came online, working with Doug Venable, Davis found ways to use PHERMEX to reveal the physics of explosive pre-shock (the desensitization of plastic-bonded explosives by weak shocks), the equation of state of explosive products and reaction-zone effects in a striking way.

Davis’ curiosity led him to ask probing questions concerning the detonation community’s established views of explosives. “Failure of the CJ Theory for Liquid and Solid Explosives,” published in 1965, demonstrated that CJ theory did not provide an adequate description of detonation. As a founder of the Los Alamos, “Fundamental Research in Explosives Program,” Davis knew that more than empirical knowledge was needed to truly understand high explosives. That program led to our improved understanding of the high-pressure equations of state and detonation propagation in liquid nitric oxide explosive, which brought with it a new understanding of high-explosive detonation. That work led to his developing the WSD equation of state for explosives, published in 1985 and 2005. Davis' book, Detonation, published in 1979 and coauthored with Wildon Fickett, remains the go-to source for explosive detonation theory and experiment. His work on explosives was as much an avocation as a vocation.  

He also wrote two chapters of the book Explosive Effects and Applications edited by J. A. Zukas and W. P. Walters. He wrote many papers and reports, and found his work enjoyable and rewarding. He never felt that he had to work, just entertain himself by finding how things operate. Both experiment and theory were part of his effort. Director Donald Kerr appointed him a Laboratory Fellow in 1982.

Bill made the most of the outdoor activities. He skied in winter, both downhill and cross country. He was on the ski patrol for a dozen years, and on winter search and rescue teams. In summer there was backpacking with children from three years old to ones much older, in Bandelier backcountry, Pecos wilderness, San Pedro Parks wild area, Peralta Canyon, and canoe trips to Shoshone Lake in Yellowstone National Park.

He is survived by his children Jim Davis (Nancy Morgan), Jack Davis (Cathy), Bob Davis (Clarity Kjis), Anne Davis (Patrick "Red" Howard), and his stepchildren Shelly Cross (Troy Matevia), Katy Cross, and Doug Cross, as well as 6 grandchildren and 6 great grandchildren, and his beloved sister Marjorie D. Lane. He was revered and loved by his family, his many friends and colleagues. His kindness, wit, and great generosity will be deeply missed.

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