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Seymour Laxon

A memorial

in General , Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, I thought I might write a few blog posts during our travels in Argentina and Antarctica. But what follows is the last thing I expected to write.

On the evening of January 2nd, in a bar in Buenos Aires of all places, I heard the shocking news of Seymour Laxon’s fatal accident on New Year’s Day. It was difficult to know how to react, but a few hours later I sat down to write some thoughts. Unfortunately they were swallowed by the internet. I’ve been struggling to find a internet connection for the last few days, and I just hope I can remember my initial instinctive thoughts.

Apart from the thin veneer of Facebook, I have not really been in touch which Seymour since around 2001, so my perspective is on “Seymour before he got famous”, sort of. But I doubt that he changed much over the last decade, as he moved from being a drifting, gifted postdoc researcher to a highly respected senior scientist, partner to Fiona and father to Imogen.

I first met Seymour in, I think, October 1988, when I joined Chris Rapley’s team at UCL’s Mullard Space Science Laboratory, after 5 years with the British Antarctic Survey. Chris had assembled a great team of wonderful people at MSSL, but Seymour immediately stood out as a unique individual. He was welcoming, gregarious, enthusiastic, and although I don’t remember the exact details of our first meeting, I expect they involved a local pub and a beer, or two. Or three. Followed, I should add, by serious, dedicated science.

Seymour very quickly become a good and close friend, and it wasn’t too long before I first heard about, and then met, the object of his desire, Fiona. Over the following years, Fiona also became a good friend, and in turn on occasion a shoulder for me to cry on as well. The evolution of Seymour and Fiona’s relationship was epic and convoluted, major chick-flick grade stuff, but although there were ups and downs, sometimes quite serious downs, Seymour never gave up, and eventually we got the happy ending that perhaps nobody really expected. But they were made for each other, and as two exceptional people they also deserved the happy relationship they settled into.

On the professional front, we didn’t have much direct interaction, as Seymour’s area was sea ice, and mine was mainly shelf and land ice. However on the nascent remote sensing technology front there was plenty to share, and Seymour was always ready to provide help, advice, and solid criticism of the interpretation of satellite radar altimeter data. He was also very open to ideas and approaches which differed from his own, not a particularly common quality in scientific circles. He was a dedicated a gifted empirical scientist, with plenty of respect for the value of field work, but at the same time a solid grounding in physics, mathematics and computation.

But as I slowly drifted away from pure science, then applied science, and the science altogether, Seymour remained a firm and dependable friend. But memories of him will really always be fixed around the time when he wore a series of beloved sweaters up to the point of disintegration, when he pretty much lived out of the back of his battered Ford Sierra, the infamous “Desert Ship”, and when he was always on hand to point out that the pubs were still open. Or indeed to remind me I had a bottle of whisky at home.

I guess this memory I have of Seymour is out of date and fixed in the 90s, but as I wrote before, I cannot imagine he changed that much.

I always meant that we should get together again. I was just too selfish with my time, to preoccupied with my own life, too much self-imposed exiled in Switzerland, and just too antisocial. Actually I was beginning to emerge from this decade-long disappearance, even starting to engage with old friends on Facebook. So it’s ironic that it was through Facebook that I first heard the news.

Obviously there is nothing that can compare to the awful loss for Fiona and Imogen, but the news has hit me harder than I might have imagined as well. Probably the number of close friends I’ve had the good fortune to have through my life so far numbers less than 10, Seymour and Fiona are two of those.

I’ve got very little access to the internet over these weeks, so I haven’t been able to catch up much. But I have seen a few tributes which highlight Seymour’s professional achievements. As much as I respect those, for me the overriding memory is just that of truly wonderful, warm and unique person, a great friend who I sadly neglected (my loss, not his), and who can never be forgotten.

Many people have written their moving and eloquent recollections and tributes to Seymour on this site. Clearly he was a very special person.