Raymond Davis Jr. was born October 14, 1914, in Washington, DC. His father was a photographer at the National Bureau of Standards and his mother was a homemaker. She taught him a love for music and encouraged him to sing in the choir. His father infused a strong interest in science and scientific equipment, as well as a sense of independence. His younger brother was Warren.
Davis grew up in Washington, attending public schools. He graduated from nearby University of Maryland in 1938 with a BS in chemistry. He then spent one year in Midland, Michigan, north of Detroit, working for Dow Chemical Company. He returned to Maryland and received an MS in 1940. Davis then entered Yale, where he earned a PhD in physical chemistry in 1942. During the World War II years 1942 to 1946, Davis was in the US Army Air Force as a reserve officer. He worked at the Dugway Proving Ground in Utah on chemical weapons testing. In 1945, Davis moved to Miamisburg, Ohio, working in radiochemistry for Monsanto Chemical Company.
In 1948, Davis accepted a position at the Brookhaven National Laboratory, created to find peacetime uses for atomic energy. Davis spent his off-hours constructing a 21 foot sloop. He met and married Anna Torrey in 1948; she also worked at Brookhaven. According to Davis:
My first act, on arriving at Brookhaven, was to report to the chairman of the Chemistry Department, Richard Dodson, and ask him what I was expected to do. To my surprise and delight, I was advised to go to the library, do some reading and choose a project of my own, whatever appealed to me. Thus began a long career of doing just what I wanted to do and getting paid for it. In the library, I read a 1948 review paper by H. R. Crane in Reviews of Modern Physics which led me to decide on an experiment in neutrino physics, a field in which little was known at the time, and which seemed well-suited to my background in physical chemistry.
Davis spent the next thirty years proving that the energy of the sun comes from the fusion of hydrogen nuclei into helium nuclei. He demonstrated that neutrinos are formed when hydrogen is converted into helium. His most elaborate experiment took place in the Homestake Gold Mine in South Dakota where he constructed a tank that held over 600 tons of dry cleaning fluid (tetrachloroethylene) and measured the argon atoms that were created when the neutrinos reacted with the chlorine. The 4,800 foot deep location meant that neutrinos from the sun would not interfere with his count.
Davis’ research was supported by the Department of Energy from 1965 to 1984 and by the National Science Foundation since 1985.
Davis has published over 100 articles. Davis is also known for his generous spirit and his willingness to help other researchers. He is recognized for the risk he undertook in devoting so much of his career to a project with an unknown outcome. According to Davis:
Neutrinos are fascinating particles, so tiny and fast that they can pass straight through everything, even the earth itself, without even slowing down. When I began my work, I was intrigued by the idea of learning something new. The interesting thing about doing new experiments is that you never know what the answer is going to be!
Davis retired from Brookhaven in 1984 and joined the University of Pennsylvania. He is Professor Emeritus at the Department of Physics and Astronomy. Davis shared the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2002 for his work with cosmic neutrinos. His research helped found the field of neutrino-astronomy.
Davis has five grown children and eleven grandchildren.
Honors and Awards
- Boris Pregel Prize (New York Academy of Sciences), 1957
- Cyrus B. Comstock Prize (U. S. National Academy of Sciences), 1978
- American Chemical Society Award for Nuclear Applications in Chemistry, 1979
- Tom W. Bonner Prize (American Physical Society), 1988
- Honorary Doctor of Science, University of Pennsylvania, 1990
- W. K. H. Panofsky Prize (American Physical Society), 1992
- Beatrice M. Tinsley Prize (American Astronomical Society), 1995
- George Ellery Hale Prize (American Astronomical Society), 1996
- Honorary Doctor of Science, Laurentian University, 1997
- Bruno Pontecorvo Prize, Joint Institute for Nuclear Research, Dubna Russia, 1999
- Wolf Prize, 2000
- Honorary Doctor of Science, University of Chicago, 2000
- U. S. National Medal of Science, 2001
- Nobel Prize in Physics, 2002
- Fermi Award, 2003