Monday, April 16, 2012

Professor David John Axon, Ph.D. 1951 – 2012

David Axon will be remembered as one of the most versatile, creative and respected astrophysicists of his generation. He was also apassionate educator and tireless in his efforts to enhance the student’s experience of higher education.

Born in Doncaster in the county of Yorkshire, England, to an English father and Welsh mother, David possessed a formidable combination of sharp intelligence, Yorkshire determination and Welsh “hwyl”[1]. He earned his bachelor’s degree in Physics from the University of Durham in 1972, and in 1977, completed his Ph.D. at the same institution under the direction of Sir Arnold Wolfendale, FRS. He subsequently held research fellowships at the University of Sussex, University College London and the Institute of Astronomy at the University of Cambridge. In 1983, he was appointed to a faculty position at the University of Manchester, where he taught Physics and carried out research at the Nuffield Radio Astronomy Laboratory at Jodrell Bank. He attained tenure at Manchester in 1986. In 1993, David took leave from the University to take up an appointment at the SpaceTelescope Science Institute in Baltimore, MD, where he was the instrument scientist responsible for the NICMOS near infra-red camera aboard the Hubble Space Telescope. He returned to Manchester in 1998 but the following year was appointed Professor and Head of the Department of Physical Sciences atUniversity of Hertfordshire.

In 2002, David joined the Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, NY, as the Head of the Physics Department in the College of Science. Under his leadership the face of the Department was transformed, the number of Physics majors grew substantially, and several important curriculum initiatives were implemented, including the introduction of a Capstone Research Experience as a graduation requirement. David was also an essential catalyst in the spectacular growth of the astrophysics research group at RIT; astrophysical sciences is now one of RIT’s flagship research programs and involves nearly 40 faculty, post-docs and graduate students and three research centers: the Center for Computational Relativity and Gravitation, the Center for Detectors and the Laboratory for Multiwavelength Astrophysics. Together with Dr. Stefi Baum, Director of the Center for Imaging Science, David led the development of the Astrophysical Sciences and Technology graduate program, and became, with Stefi, one its founding co-Directors when it began operations in Fall 2008. It is inno small part due to David’s efforts that the program awarded its first PhD’sin Spring 2011. In recognition of his leadership in promoting research at RIT, in particular for undergraduates, David was the recipient of the RIT Trustees Scholarship award in 2008. Just a few weeks before his untimely passing, he was also recognized by RIT as a “PI Millionaire”, an accolade awarded to principle investigators who have secured cumulative grant income exceeding $1,000,000.

In 2009, David was appointed Head of the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at the University of Sussex, one of the UK’stop-ranked universities. However, he retained strong links with RIT as a Research Professor in the Department of Physics, visiting regularly and maintaining extensive research collaborations with members of the astrophysics group.

David’s research interests were many and varied but he is best known as a leading expert in astronomical polarimetry and in the physics of Active Galactic Nuclei — highly energetic sources associated with supermassive black holes in the centers of galaxies. His published output includes over 230 refereed papers in the leading astronomical journals, with many more in the pipeline. This body of work includes seminal papers on the starburst galaxy Messier 82, the relativistic jets in the radio galaxy 3C120, the discovery of “ionization cones” in Seyfert galaxies and the measurement of the mass (3 billion times the mass of the Sun) of the black hole in the giant elliptical galaxy Messier 87. However, it may be that David’s true value as ascientist was his gift for collaboration, through which he eagerly shared the multitude of ideas generated by his fertile mind. His publication list reveals an astonishing number of co-authors from many different specializations and many different countries.

Working with David either as a research collaborator or anacademic colleague was always productive, often exhilarating, occasionally challenging but never, ever dull. His boundless energy, insatiable enthusiasmfor science and unwillingness to accept the status quo, when he could see better ways of doing things, made him a superb scientist and a dynamic leader. He was also an inspiring mentor to many graduate and undergraduate students, post-doctoral research fellows, and junior faculty. Outside of his professional life, David was a keen, not to say manic, hiker, a hilarious raconteur and an ardent supporter of Doncaster Rovers Football Club. His zest for life and good-hearted nature made him a true and generous friend and a loving husband to his wife, Lynne. He will be sorely missed by his family and his many friends, collaborators, students and colleagues both at RIT and from around the world.

On behalf of David’s friends, colleagues and students at RIT,
Dr Andy Robinson
Professor, Department of Physics
Director, Astrophysical Sciences and Technology
Rochester Institute of Technology


Acknowledgements: AR thanks Lynne Axon, RIT colleagues Dr Michael Kotlarchyk, Dr Stefi Baum and Dr Sophia Maggelakis,and Dr William Sparks of the Space Telescope Science Institute, for encouragement, comments and suggestions.

[1] From Welsh: astirring feeling of emotional motivation and energy (OED).

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