Tom Shankland passed away

Tom Shankland, a pioneer in mineral physics, died peacefully on June 26.

Jul 16, 2022

from the compress email-list:

"Thomas J. Shankland (86), a pioneer in mineral physics, died peacefully on June 26th. He fell asleep during a return flight from France following a vacation with his family and did not awaken.

The son of a civil engineer in Boulder City, NV, Tom traveled east to Harvard to obtain all degrees - an AB in Engineering Physics (1958), a MA (1960), and the PhD in Solid State Physics (1966). Following an NSF Fellowship at Bristol in 1958-1959 and with influence from Francis Birch, Tom launched into graduate study culminating in the synthesis of large high-quality forsterite crystals (first publication in 1963 in American Mineralogist) and the measurement of the olivine band gap under ambient pressure. During a NATO post-doctoral fellowship (1967-1968) at Newcastle upon Tyne he measured the pressure shift of the band gap to 40 kb. The resulting publications provided estimates of the radiative contributions to thermal conductivity with reference to heat transport in the upper mantle.

Tom served as Assistant and Associate Professor at Harvard from 1968 to 1975. During that time, he continued to expand experimental determinations of optical properties of geologic materials. His articulation in 1972 of a physics-based explanation for Birch’s empirical relationship between elastic wave velocities, densities, and mean-atomic-weight was a seminal contribution in mineral physics.

Returning to the southwest in 1975, he accepted a position within the geophysics group at the Los Alamos National Laboratory and continued there beyond retirement. Tom loved travel and was in demand for positions around the globe. He served as a Visiting Assistant Professor of Geophysics, California Institute of Technology (1972), a Visiting Fellow, Department of Earth Sciences and in Clare Hall, Cambridge University, England (1983-1984), a CNRS Poste Rouge and Geophysicien, Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris, France (1991-1992), and an Alexander von Humboldt Fellow, Bayerisches Geoinsitut, Universität Bayreuth (1997-1998).

Tom undertook a rich spectrum of experimental and theoretical work. In addition to his early radiative transport work, he and Los Alamos collaborators developed linear and non-linear acoustic methods to explore rheologic behavior of rocks. The 1981 publication of a geotherm for the mantle is his most widely cited paper (some 550 citations). In a collection of publications, he and his collaborator developed the theory for point defects in minerals as an important consideration of their electrical conductivities. He also explored the electrical and thermal conductivity of Earth’s mantle and temperatures of the core based on melting theory. In recognition of his contributions, he was elected a Fellow of the American Geophysical Union in 1994 and received the Los Alamos Achievement Award in 1996.

With a quick wit and always friendly demeanor, Tom was universally liked and engaged in a full spectrum of service within the community. For decades Tom could reliably be found at the Fall AGU conference in San Francisco. His knowledge of interesting restaurants was phenomenal, and he had a knack in bringing diverse people together to share the experiences. Those who visited Los Alamos were treated to exceptionally warm hospitality from Tom and his wife Becky. Wonderful meals and spectacular views (and hikes) were shared at their passive-solar-heated home on the edge of the White Rock Canyon above the Rio Grande River. Although fitting well in the piñon and juniper high desert of the southwest, the basic saltbox shape of the home is a reminder of their ties to New England.

Well into retirement, Tom confided that his self-image was as the “boy geophysicist”. His playful attitude towards life coupled with a deep and infectious enthusiasm for physics and the inner workings of Earth is a lasting influence on all who worked with him.

A memorial in Los Alamos (or by Zoom) is scheduled for July 31 at 10:30 am. Contact Michael Brown ( for more information and to RSVP. In lieu of flowers, donations in his honor to, Union of Concerned Scientists, or International Rescue Committee are welcome. If you would like to contribute a written memory of Tom, please email it and we will print and post these at the venue."