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Robert E. Davies (1919–1993)

Published onSep 01, 1993
Robert E. Davies (1919–1993)

Bob Davies passed from active to Emeritus status at the University of Pennsylvania in 1990. A skillful caver, mountain climber, and white-water adventurer, he died of a coronary attack while on a climbing trip in rural Scotland.

Bob was born in Lancashire, U.K. of working-class parents and earned his D.Sc. from the University of Manchester and Ph.D. from Sheffield. Having been on the faculties of Sheffeld and Oxford, he emigrated to the U.S. in 1955. Although remaining a British citizen, he spent the rest of his career at Pennsylvania.

His first known involvement with astronomical matters came in service on the workshop committee convened by the Space Science Board in June, 1966 to evaluate the environment in the Apollo cabin. Publication of the critique of the pure O2 cabin atmosphere by W. O. Fenn and endorsement of that critique by Bob did not appear in print until after the on-board and laboratory fires.

A superior teacher-scholar, he held primary or secondary appointments in six schools of the University and taught in 17 departments. With his career in muscle metabolism completely mature in the 1970's, Bob and William Langer created an intensive undergraduate course concerning Origins of Life. This was structured to develop the inorganic environment for both biochemical and biological evolution and finished with the theory and practice of interstellar communication and the practical impediments to space travel. Instantly popular, the course was later elaborated by Bob, Paul Wiita, and the writer and passed into a challenging General Honors format with the entire term given over to student library research and presentations.

As he gained a deeper awareness of modern astrophysical science, Bob saw opportunities where his biochemical expertise could be melded with astronomical matters. These also centered around the concept of Life's origins and, with an invited paper at the 36th International Astronomical Congress in Stockjholm, he contributed the only modern critique of the theme of Panspermia. He felt very deeply about developing any claim to the limit of evidence and no further, and this attitude was the foundation for his papers contending against the existence of interstellar organisms. His widest vision of the beginnings and continuation of terrestrial Life was expressed in the last paper by himslef and the writer which ended with an estimate of the number of galactic supernovae necessary to have created the known abundances and concentrations of selected elements essential for Life.

In the 16 years of Bob's association with the Astronomy Department, he remained a congenial, gentlemanly colleague with a common-sensical view of science and a passion for human justice tempered by a sardonic view of our foibles.

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