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Morris S. Davis (1919-2012)

Morris Schuyler Davis, 92, Morehead Professor Emeritus of Astronomy at the University of North Carolina and early proponent of the use of computers in astronomical research, died on 19 June 2012 in Chapel Hill. Davis was born on 14 December 1919 in Brooklyn, New York, to Helen and Nathan Davis, an immigrant who ran a necktie manufacturing business. During his teenage years, he became fascinated by the stars and joined the Hayden Planetarium's Young Astronomers' Club. A lifelong pacifist, he was a conscientious objector during World War II, for which he served a year at the Danbury (Connecticut) Federal Correctional Institution. In 1945, while employed at a Quaker Settlement house in Philadelphia, he married Dorothy Hall, who would later become a well-known potter in North Carolina.

Davis completed his Ph.D. in the field of celestial mechanics at Yale University in 1950 under the supervision of Dirk Brouwer. His thesis, “A Study of the Method of Rectangular Coordinates in General Planetary Theory,” was published in the Astronomical Journal in February 1952. Davis taught general astronomy to undergraduates and celestial mechanics to graduate students at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill from 1952 to 1956 and from 1970 to 1985. His early-career experience with computers led to his appointment as Director of the Yale University Computation Center from 1956-1966.

In his memoir, Adventures in Order and Chaos, astronomer George Contopoulos recalls how Morris Davis reach out to him during a lonely summer sabbatical at Yale:

“Morris Davis provided something like a family for me. … [He] invited me to his house once a week. He had five nice children. Everyone was playing a musical instrument. And when they sang they were excellent. In return I told them fairy tales. Thus, we became good friends, and I learn of their progress every Christmas even now.

I owe to Morris Davis also a lot as regards the use of computers. We had, first, a small computer, connected with a [tele-]typewriter. When I wanted to calculate an orbit, I was sitting next to the typewriter with a piece of graph paper. Every few minutes the typewriter would write the coordinates of a point along the orbit. I would mark the point on the paper and then wait for the next line. This process was incredibly slow. But even if I had all the computer results in front of me, the drawing of each orbit took several (3-5) hours.”

Morris Davis returned to North Carolina in 1966 as Director of the Triangle Universities Computation Center, in Research Triangle Park, a post he held until 1970. During this period, he developed a multi-campus network of computers and served as a Research Associate in Astronomy at the University of North Carolina, North Carolina State, and Duke University.

Davis resumed his full-time faculty status at UNC from 1970-1985. At various times, he held teaching positions at the University of Missouri and University of Kentucky and was a board member of the National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) and the Hubble Space Telescope. He was also Editor in Chief of the journal Celestial Mechanics from 1985 to 1989. Davis enjoyed lecturing to community groups about astronomy and wrote a regular astronomy column in the Chapel Hill Weekly (now Chapel Hill News) for several years.

Obituary written by: Alan Hirshfeld (University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth)

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BAAS Citation: BAAS, 2017, 49, 016