Seymour Laxon, 1963-2013

January 17, 2013

A leading researcher on the changes taking place at the polar ice caps has died.

Seymour Laxon was born on 22 September 1963 and brought up in Leamington Spa and then North London. His parents were academics - his mother a lecturer in psychology and his father a pioneer in computer-aided design - and he spent a sabbatical year with them in France. He would later recall the time when vast magnetic coils of core memory were delivered by truck for his father's mainframe computer in Paris. Professor Laxon soon learned how to create an IQ test on his own computer, thereby developing the programming skills that would prove crucial to his research career.

In 1985, he completed a BSc in physics and astronomy at University College London - where his mother had once edited the student magazine - and stayed on for a doctorate in the institution's Mullard Space Science Laboratory.

He was to remain at UCL for the rest of his life, as a research assistant, research associate, lecturer and then senior lecturer in space and climate physics before being appointed reader in climate physics in 2005. He was promoted to professor last year and also served as director of the Centre for Polar Observation and Modelling within the university's department of earth sciences.

Throughout his career, Professor Laxon was at the heart of efforts to develop techniques of radar altimetry to map the shape of the ocean surface beneath the Arctic ice.

His successes in this area spurred the European Space Agency to launch CryoSat, the first satellite dedicated to observing the ice-covered regions of the Earth. Since changes to the ice caps have a huge impact on the exchange of energy between the ocean and the atmosphere, such data are vital for the serious study of climate change.

Duncan Wingham, head of UCL's department of earth sciences, recalled a man with "an innate gentleness to which everyone was attracted. I know that he put back together the pieces of more than one postgraduate ego emerging from my office."

He said: "That didn't prevent him from having a sharp, affectionate humour that delighted in others' minor misfortunes. 'Up before the beak, then,' he remarked to me as I trudged off to tell a dean how I had screwed up that year's undergraduate entry."

Professor Wingham added: "I could work another lifetime, but I won't find another colleague like Seymour."

Professor Laxon died on 2 January after a fall the preceding day. He is survived by his mother Veronica, his partner Fiona Strawbridge and their daughter Imogen.

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