Obituary: Christopher Skinner

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The Independent Online
Christopher John Skinner, astrophysicist: born Loddon, Norfolk 26 June 1963; died King's Lynn, Norfolk 21 October 1997.

Christopher Skinner's sudden death at the age of 34, from a sudden worsening of the diabetes he had suffered from the age of two, has cut short an outstanding career in astrophysics. He had a brilliant career ahead of him, both in infra-red astronomy but particularly in UK astronomy, to which he was about to return after several years at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland. He had recently been appointed to a Lectureship in Astrophysics in Sheffield University's Department of Physics which he was due to take up next month.

Already by the age of 34 Skinner's contributions to science had surpassed those made by many practitioners over a full lifetime. His combination of expertise in both instrument-building and in theory distinguished him from virtually every other astronomer. His scientific papers covered a large range of topics, and included infra-red, optical and radio observations, theoretical radiative transfer modelling of molecular lines and the emission by warm dust particles.

He made an enduring contribution to our understanding of the dust-particle discs which have been found around stars similar to our own Sun and which may be a sign of planet-building in action; as well as to the study of the molecules and dust particles ejected by red giant stars - stars which are responsible for the synthesis of the particulate solids which are subsequently incorporated into and form planets such as the Earth.

A paper on the Egg Nebula in the constellation of Cygnus, of which he was the principal author and which appeared in the 1 December issue of the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics, is representative of his strengths and creative abilities, gathering a wide range of new observational data to which he applied sophisticated numerical modelling of the radiation flow in the nebula, and great physical insight, to achieve an elegant new synthesis for understanding the complex characteristics of the system.

Chris Skinner was born in 1963 in Loddon, Norfolk. Following his education in King's Lynn, he undertook a degree in Astronomy and Physics at University College London, graduating in 1984, and remaining there to undertake a PhD research project with the infra-red astronomy group.

This involved the building of CGS3, an infra-red spectrometer tuned to wavelengths longer than those to which the eye is sensitive, which was successfully commissioned on the UK Infra-red Telescope on Mauna Kea, Hawaii. There Skinner established his instrument-building skills, but at the same time independently embarked on his own initiative on a separate project to analyse and numerically model the radiation emitted by dust particles present in the material ejected by red giant stars of the type that our own Sun will one day become. He revealed himself to be a talented theoretician and numerical analyst.

Following a PhD in Astrophysics in 1987 and a post-doctoral appointment at UCL, Skinner won an SERC personal Research Fellowship, which he elected to hold at Manchester University's Jodrell Bank Radio Observatory in 1990 and 1991. There he embarked on an energetic programme that made use of Merlin, the Multi-Element Radio Linked Interferometer, to study the structure at very small angular scales of the ionised gas ejected by massive stars.

At the end of 1991, he moved to the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory in northern California, where he stayed for three years, and was responsible for operating and upgrading the Berkcam infra-red camera. At the same time he initiated many successful new observing programmes which made use of this instrument on the telescopes on Mauna Kea.

Three years later he took up a position at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland, where he was part of the team responsible for the tricky but successful commissioning of the new infra-red camera Nicmos, which was installed on the Hubble Space Telescope by Shuttle astronauts in February this year and designed to obtain very sensitive images and spectra of galaxies, nebulae and stars at infra-red wavelengths. He worked long hours to characterise the properties of Nicmos, helping to make it the success it has become.

Chris Skinner authored 63 scientific publications in less than 10 years, of which 41 were in refereed journals. Further papers are in press. He always seemed to view life with amusement and certainly lived it to the full. Over the years he sent his friends and colleagues many detailed and often hilarious e-mails, which must have amounted to millions of words. He also played a key role in encouraging the research of several younger colleagues by acting as a mentor at crucial stages in their careers.