Thomas Jack Shankland died of heart failure in his sleep on Sunday, June 26, 2022, aged 86, on the flight back to the United States after a two-week vacation in France with his family.
He is survived by his wife, Rebecca; his sister, Ann Shankland; his daughter and son-in-law, Susanna and Brad Marshland; his son and daughter-in-law, Stephen Shankland and Rachel Konrad; his grandsons Alexander Marshland, Kai Marshland, Levi Konrad-Shankland, and Adam Konrad-Shankland; and his cousins Cindy Mohn-Lehmann and Peter Mohn.
He was born in 1935 to Jack and Katherine Shankland in Pomona, California. He taught himself to read from newspaper comics during the Great Depression, growing up and attending high school mostly in the tiny town of Boulder City, Nevada. He earned bachelors, masters, and doctoral degrees from Harvard University, where he studied physics and geophysics and met Rebecca Hoge. They married in 1958, and their daughter Susanna was born in 1965 and son Stephen in 1968.
He spent his early career in geophysics as a research assistant and assistant professor at Harvard at a time when the theory of plate tectonics was revolutionizing the field. In 1975, he began work as a staff member at Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, later renamed Los Alamos National Laboratory, where he spent most of his career. The couple loved traveling the globe, and Tom held international positions at the University of Bristol, University of Newcastle upon Tyne and Cambridge University in England, the Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris in France, and the University of Bayreuth in Germany.
He specialized in the physics of the Earth’s deep interior. He focused on electrical conductivity of materials in the planet’s mantle and was instrumental in establishing research into the nonlinear behavior of sound waves traveling within the Earth. The electrical conductivity work helped him characterize minerals deep in the Earth under different pressure and temperature conditions for the first time. The nonlinearity research proved important for studying underground oil, gas, and water resources. The work enabled him to publish dozens of research papers and edit many more, collaborate with many fellow scientists around the globe, shepherd the careers of numerous postdocs, and earn him the prestigious position of fellow of the American Geophysical Union — an honor accorded to fewer than one in 1,000 in the professional organization. He also was honored with the Los Alamos Achievement Award and the Poste Rouge at the French National Centre for Scientific Research, and he was named Alexander von Humboldt fellow at the University of Bayreuth. His work embodied the motivation that many scientists have: finding out how the heck something works.
He explored the Nevada desert as a child, taught himself to ski and rock climb, and took his family on weekend hikes and week-long backpacking trips into what he called the Church of the Outdoors. He embraced mountain biking in middle age, disappearing for lunch trips to explore the Los Alamos mountains. He loved the wilderness’s blend of scenic beauty and physical and mental challenges. For years, he helped other skiers as a Los Alamos Ski Patrol volunteer. One of his skiing mottos: there’s no such thing as bad snow. Approach skiing as a series of challenges and you won’t be disappointed — an attitude he applied to his whole life.
He was insatiably curious about science, always carrying around copies of Science or Physics Today and underlining key passages. But he was fascinated by everything else, too — medieval history, politics, bluegrass music, computers, stone carvings on Romanesque churches in Europe. As anyone who spent time with him knew, he loved sharing what he’d learned with students, colleagues, dinner party companions, kids’ visiting roommates, and anyone else in earshot.
With a wry sense of humor, he could readily entertain others with pithy Shakespeare quotations and amusing limericks. He reliably carried emergency supplies in his backpack and a Swiss army knife in his pocket. And he had wisdom to impart: Always bring something to read. Put the tools back where you found them. No matter what career you’re in, you’ll have to be able to express yourself clearly in writing. Your clothing choice is a form of communication. When you have dirty feet while getting into the car, kick them together instead of banging all that grit against the car paint. A problem that can be solved by money isn’t actually a problem.
A celebration of his life will be held on July 31 at Fuller Lodge (and virtually) in Los Alamos, New Mexico. Donations in his honor to 350.org, the Union of Concerned Scientists, or the International Rescue Committee are welcome in lieu of flowers.