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Paul Ruffle (1951–2013)

In addition to his AAS membership, Ruffle was a Fellow and Honorary Auditor of the Royal Astronomical Society, radio astronomer, and all-around astronomy enthusiast.

Published onJan 10, 2022
Paul Ruffle (1951–2013)
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Photo courtesy Astronomy & Geology.

Paul Ruffle died on Thursday, November 21, 2013, at age 62.

Dr. Paul Ruffle died on November 21, 2013, from complications following surgery. Paul was born in London and left school at 16 to work in an art agency, during which time he attended St Martin’s College of Art. Although art was, at that time, his major talent in life, he had also developed an interest in astronomy during his school days. His career took him to a variety of advertising agencies and publishing companies. In 1987 he became publications production manager of RCI Europe, a company which specialized in multilingual holiday brochures. It was at this point that he became an early adopter of technology and an enthusiastic fan of the Apple Mac® — the design of Apple products being almost as important to him as their functionality. Paul subsequently spent 13 years as Head of Creative Services, Director of Multimedia Development and Director of Special Internet Projects for RCI Europe.

Open University

Married with a young family, Paul found time in 1989 to enroll as a student in Natural Sciences at the Open University (OU), but his studies were interrupted for six years by the death of his wife. In 2001 — at the age of 50 — he attended a Young Physicists conference and realized that the possibility of being a Ph.D. student was not limited to those young in years. In October 2002, Paul sat his final examination as an OU student and the following day started his Ph.D. at the University of Manchester Institute of Science & Technology (UMIST), in an office five floors above his examination room. He was very proud of his achievements as an OU student and was extremely supportive of OU activities in later years, writing articles for and helping design the Physics Society’s Fusion newsletter, organizing student conferences, as well as acting as a physics tutor.

Paul was my first and, to date, only Ph.D. student older than myself, which created an interesting dynamic between the two of us and in the rest of the research group. (Also, my children couldn’t understand how a Ph.D. student could afford a bright red Mercedes SLR while I, seemingly, could not). Paul was an enthusiast in everything he did and undertaking his Ph.D. was no exception.

Radio astronomy

Shortly after commencing his studies with me, Albert Zijlstra “borrowed” him, ostensibly for a short time, to help complete a project on dust extinction in Galactic bulge planetary nebulae. Paul, though, loved to learn by doing and would often bring things back to fundamentals in order to ensure that he had completely mastered a topic. It was therefore some time before he returned to his study with me of molecular and dust emission from giant molecular clouds in the outer edges of our galaxy. During his Ph.D., Paul attended the Insitut de Radioastronomie Millimétrique (IRAM) Summer School on radio astronomy and subsequently volunteered there as a telescope operator. He became a skilled radio astronomer during his Ph.D. and observed at Nobeyama, SEST, the JCMT and the NRAO 12 m telescopes, among others.

On finishing his Ph.D. in 2006, now as a student in the University of Manchester, with a thesis that included a sprinkling of paintings by Kandinsky and Van Gogh, Paul moved to a postdoctoral position at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, West Virginia. He had warned them at interview that they wouldn’t be recruiting a typical postdoc. They thought this was a reference to his age — how wrong they were! Paul brought with him not only his talent in art, but also a love of music and the theatre. Here, too, he was not simply an observer, but a practitioner and the corridors were soon ringing with duets from Paul and his office mate Jules Harnett. He had a fine sense of humor and often used to tell jokes at the expense of the “colonials” — he had a fine knowledge of Cockney rhyming slang with which to baffle them!

On retirement he returned to England to a new home in Hebden Bridge with his partner, Rose Wheeler. The restoration of this house and its gardens provided Paul with yet another opportunity to marry technology with design and he installed solar panels, a water catchment and management system, and a weather station that is a major source of information for residents of the Calder Valley (http://www.owlers.com). He had caught the astronomy bug, however, and became very involved in public outreach and widely known through lectures to amateur astronomy associations, around 10 per year, and on local radio. In these he was able to combine his love of astronomy, art, and design; web design was one of his hobbies — see http://www.paulruffle.com. Ciska Kemper, then at the University of Manchester, lured him out of retirement to a part-time post working on the Spitzer SAGE-Spec project, work in which he was still involved at the time of his death.

Paul was energetic, committed, enthusiastic, and evangelical about astronomy, like a child with the universe to explore, and he made the most of the unexpected opportunity he had late in life. He was full of fun and laughter, coupled with just the right amount of mischief and a healthy disregard for pomposity. None of us who worked with him were untouched by his life and, just as profoundly, by his unexpected death. He is survived by Rose, his children Andrew and Lara, and their families.


Text and photo used with permission, adapted from the original article by Tom Millar in Astronomy & Geology [1].

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