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Davis tells lively tale of geophysics student life in the 1950s

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Posted: Saturday, July 14, 2012 10:53 pm

FAIRBANKS — A memoir about life as a student of geophysics during the 1950s might not leap to the top of many people’s reading lists. Anything involving the word “physics” can be enough to scare off those who fared poorly in lower-division science classes, while learning about another person’s experience of learning about it threatens to be a first class ticket to Dullsville.

Such readers should fear not, however, when presented with “Head, Tail, & Guts Included,” the new book by University of Alaska Fairbanks geophysics professor emeritus Neil Davis. It’s a lively, often laugh-out-loud funny account of a young man earning his degrees that keeps the science to a minimum and focuses on the human side of the endeavor.

Davis has distinguished himself over the years with his ability to write well on a variety of topics. His “Alaska Science Nuggets” is a fixture on many Alaska bookshelves, but his interests and knowledge extend into many other areas. He can deliver serious prose, but when writing about himself, seriousness is the first thing he tosses out the window.

Readers will discover this from the opening pages, wherein he revisits his ill-fated ROTC experience, a brief diversion that appears to have left lifelong scars. It’s a hysterical account of being young and finding oneself in the worst possible place.

From there Davis jumps back to his early days following his itinerant parents around the country, including a hitch in North Pole during the ’40s. In his Iowa high school, he met his wife-to-be, Rosemarie, and the story of his first sighting of her will have anyone who was ever a hormone-laden teenager doubled over with knowing giggles.

The bulk of this book entails Davis’ college career. His early years veered between UAF and Iowa State University, with summers spent working those sorts of hard-labor jobs that will convince anyone with motivation to stick with school. Along the way, he married Rosemarie and eventually settled into Fairbanks for the long haul.

As Davis worked his way into the latter stages of earning his bachelor’s degree, he went to work for the Geophysical Institute and spent a lot of time involved in ground conductivity research. This involved quite a bit of time spent leaning out of small airplanes dangling an antenna over the tops of trees (and on at least one occasion, slamming it into a building, causing some damage). In 1955, he became the first student at UAF to earn a bachelor of arts degree in geophysics.

Davis earned his master’s degree at the California Institute of Technology, but it was back to UAF for his doctorate. His work photographing the aurora borealis with his all-sky camera, conducted for the 1957-58 International Geophysical Year, formed the backbone of his research and thesis. His findings on the aurora’s movements helped expand our understanding of the upper atmosphere, and while he considered himself a minor player in geophysics, by the time he graduated he had acquired a global reputation.

While Davis’ academic accomplishments loom large in this book, much of it is devoted to more pedestrian matters such as the building of his home. Here he was one of the first to discover that squirrels were big fans of the then-new insulating material called fiberglass. He also engaged in that timeless Fairbanks pursuit of Dumpster diving in order to scrounge up materials (he wasn’t the only one — another locally well-known, now-retired professor routinely showed up at the refuse site and offered Davis steep competition for the good stuff).

Along with studying, engaging in experiments, building a home, and raising a couple of kids, Davis traveled the north extensively in those years, and the book offers lots of insight into late territorial days Alaska.

Having worked for Charles Richter (creator of the Richter Scale) while at Caltech, Davis had a strong interest in earthquakes, and this took him on two trips that are among the most compelling parts of the book. The 1958 quake near Huslia resulted in some interesting mudflows, and as part of his examination of what caused them, Davis and Rosemarie went on a long Bush trek in the surrounding area. Shortly thereafter, a massive quake struck the Yakutat region, causing some drastic land rearrangement. Davis was among the first to arrive, and his descriptions of what nature can do to a landscape in just a few moments are chilling.

Curiously, given the years this book covers, Davis never takes up the issue of statehood, which was the dominant political issue of the era. It would have been interesting to learn what his thoughts on it were at the time, especially considering the impact it had on UAF.

There’s plenty more to be found here, however, including a likely record-setting number of flat tires on the Alaska Highway, an account of the first North American sighting of Sputnik 1 from an open outhouse, a description of the fine art of squirrel-kicking on rail lines, important lessons on how to repair complex machinery by dropping it, and tellings of some elaborate and extremely clever college pranks. There are a few somber moments, but the bulk of this book is extraordinarily lighthearted. Fairbanks readers will especially appreciate the march of familiar names through these pages. And there are literally dozens of great pictures.

Davis’ kindness toward those he knew and his ceaseless humor carry this book from start to finish. His capacity for laughing at himself and confessing his own foibles is a lesson for all of us on how to not take ourselves seriously. Far from being a dull book for science nerds, this is a great read for anyone who enjoys laughing.

Freelance writer David A. James lives in Fairbanks.

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