Saturday, January 14, 2012
Astrophysicist who was found dead at a friend's house, was a lead scientist in the world's largest radio telescope project
Caroline Davies and Robert Booth
guardian.co.uk, Friday 13 January 2012 10.07 EST
Academics have said they are stunned by the sudden death of the Oxford professor Steven Rawlings, 50, at the home of a colleague.
His friend and colleague Devinder Sivia, 49, a lecturer in mathematics for sciences at Oxford University who was arrested at the scene on suspicion of murder, was released on police bail on Friday and detectives said the death may be "a matter for a coroner's inquest rather than a criminal court".
Rawlings, a leading astrophysicist based at St Peter's college, and Sivia had been friends for more than 30 years and had co-authored a book, Foundations of Science Mathematics, in 1999.
Sivia, of St John's college, was arrested after emergency crews went to his bungalow in Southmoor, Oxford, at 11.22pm on Wednesday, responding to reports that a man had been injured.
Paramedics attended but Rawlings, who was married, was declared dead at the scene.
A Home Office pathologist, Dr Nicholas Hunt, carried out a postmortem but was unable to establish a cause of death and further tests were being conducted. Sivia was bailed until 18 April.
Detective Superintendent Rob Mason, from Thames Valley police's major crime unit, said: "This is a tragic incident and our investigations are ongoing to establish cause of death.
"I would emphasise that the police are investigating all potential circumstances that could have led to his death.
"We are mindful that ultimately the death may be a matter for a coroner's inquest rather than a criminal court and I would ask for patience from both the media and the public while we continue our investigation."
Colleagues of Rawlings spoke of their "immense shock" at the loss of a leading light in the field.
He was a world-renowned expert and one of the lead scientists in the international Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project, which will be the world's largest radio telescope.
Professor Roger Davies, head of the astrophysics department at Oxford, the post Rawlings held for five years until 2010, said: "We are all stunned. The impact of his death is going to be felt very widely.
"Steve was a world-leading astrophysicist who worked on active galaxies and cosmology. He was a person who had a huge number of students and was dedicated to them and brought on an enormous number of young scientists."
Rawlings was part of the 20-strong astrophysics faculty, based at the department of physics in Oxford, for the past two decades. "It is impossible to walk the corridors without seeing him and his influence," said Davies.
"It's not an easy time at all. We'll never recover from this completely. Obviously now we are thinking of the impact on his wife, Linda." It is understood the couple had no children.
Davies said: "He was a really fun person, who had a fantastically eclectic taste in music. He organised a lot of football. He was a great footballer and he played football every Friday with students and researchers.
"The thing that he will be very strongly remembered for in the world radio astronomy community is that he led this project called the Square Kilometre Array. That project has made huge advances in the last year or two. Much of that is down to Steve's leadership . The world radio astronomy community and Oxford Astrophysics have suffered an enormous loss. "It's a very close community. Astronomy is not a big subject. But it is a very international subject. I've had statements of condolence not only widely from the UK but also from all over the world."
Colin Greenwood, company secretary of the SKA project, said it had lost a "world-renowned and well-respected" colleague.
"He was the international project scientist and co-authored the seminal book on key sciences projects for the SKA telescope that formed the basis of taking the project forward in terms of the scientific goals of the project."
He said Rawlings was instrumental in bringing the SKA office, which is at Manchester University, to the UK.
"People are absolutely devastated at news of his death. The impact on project work remains to be seen. But people aren't thinking about that at the moment."
Unconfirmed reports have suggested that Rawlings and Sivia had attended the St John's college feast earlier on Wednesday evening. Police refused to speculate on the circumstances surrounding the death, and said they were "keeping an open mind". They said they were unable to confirm if the two men had been out socially together in the hours before the professor's death.
Sivia, who is understood to be live alone at his home in Southmoor, near Abingdon, has taught maths for natural sciences to chemistry and physics undergraduates for a number of years.
His research interests revolve around Bayesian probability theory – mathematics for inferring, or reasoning, using probability.
His home was cordoned off on Friday as detectives removed two bags of materials from the premises. Neighbour Stuart Rathband, 51, said of Sivia: "He always would stop to chat. He is a very friendly guy."
He added that at 12.15am Thursday there were "a load of blue lights" and his wife saw four police cars and two ambulances. "The ambulance guys were running back and forwards trying to keep him alive," added Rathband, a BMW worker.
As tributes were paid to Rawlings, the vice-chancellor of Oxford University, Professor Andrew Hamilton, said: "The entire university community has been profoundly saddened and shocked by the tragic and untimely death of Professor Steve Rawlings. Our thoughts are with his family and friends."
The former BBC Radio 4 controller Mark Damazer, now master at St Peter's college, said Rawlings was a "much liked and admired tutor".
"Steve was elected to his fellowship in 1994, having initially been employed by the college for two years as lecturer in mathematics," he said.
Dr Tony Lynas-Gray, research assistant in Oxford University's astrophysics department, said: "Stephen Rawlings was a great man and a great astronomer. He was very much liked by his students and colleagues. We're entirely devastated."
Rawlings was educated at Tarring high school and had a PhD from Cambridge and a DPhil from Oxford.
He also worked on redeveloping the mothballed Goonhilly satellite relay station in Cornwall, which was used to communicate the 1969 moon landings.