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Roland Svensson (1950–2003)

Published onDec 01, 2003
Roland Svensson (1950–2003)

Roland Svensson was found dead on 8 April 2003. He succumbed to the complications arising from diabetes. His contribution to the understanding of the basic properties of relativistic plasmas remains a cornerstone when studying radiation processes in many astrophysical contexts.

Roland was born on 6 May 1950 in Karlshamn, Sweden. At a young age he moved with his family to Skåne, the southernmost part of Sweden. This is where he received his early education including a BS in Physics at the University of Lund in 1973. For the rest of his life, this region was home for Roland. His mother and father are Linnea Martinsson (d. 1984) and Sune Svensson. The two younger brothers are Lennart and Peter. Lennart works as a machine engineer in Sweden while Peter has settled in California as a biology professor.

Roland started graduate studies in theoretical physics in Lund before receiving a Fulbright Scholarship in 1976. He then moved to the University of California in Santa Cruz and enrolled in the astronomy and astrophysics graduate program. Although his interest in astronomy had been raised during the time in Lund, it was the stimulating environment in Santa Cruz that convinced Roland to concentrate on research in astronomy. With Roland's attitude of never accepting anything unless he understood its roots, his extended background in physics served him well throughout his astronomy career; in particular, it influenced his choice of a thesis topic. At the time, the importance of relativistic temperatures attained by accreting matter in the immediate vicinity of neutron stars and black holes was becoming clear. Roland set out to make a detailed description of the physical effects electron-positron pair production and annihilation would have on such plasmas. In 1981 Roland defended his thesis titled ``Physical Properties in Relativistic Plasmas" and completed his PhD under the supervision of Bill Mathews. Roland extended the results of his thesis during two post-docs, first at the European Southern Observatory (ESO) in Munich and later at Nordita in Copenhagen. He stayed another five years at Nordita as assistant professor. In 1990 he moved to Stockholm Observatory to take up the chair in astrophysics and cosmology.

Roland's fundamental work on pair-plasmas was done alone. It was during his time at Nordita that this aspect of Roland's research started to change. He now took the first steps towards establishing an international network within high-energy astrophysics, a pursuit that was to intensify during his time at Stockholm Observatory. The initial impetus for this was Roland's desire to develop the applications of his early work to concrete astrophysical phenomena. An important part of this effort was to engage other scientists that could complement his own background. His initiative and coordination were behind many subsequent research projects. Starting with quasars and active galactic nuclei, his interest widened to include compact X-ray binaries and gamma-ray bursts. Roland's interest in observational astronomy and data analysis grew with time. As a result his group in high-energy astrophysics at Stockholm Observatory initiated Swedish participation in several international space-based observatories, including INTEGRAL and GLAST. One of the aims of his network was to involve scientists from Russia and the eastern European countries. Due to Roland's diligence in writing applications, this led to a lively scientific exchange, which proved to be an important factor in the success of the network. It also helped these countries to further their international contacts in general.

Roland enjoyed teaching and it was a source of inspiration for him. Well-prepared lectures in combination with his sensitivity and ability to listen made him a teacher much liked by the students. He was at his best with a small group where teaching could develop into discussion. With his patience and desire to convey the essence of an argument, he could go a long way to help a student but, at the same time, he made it clear that the responsibility for learning lay with the student. He was, for a long time, director of graduate studies at Stockholm Observatory. The present graduate program owes much to Roland's efforts to modernize its structure and bring it up to an international level.

Throughout his life, two of Roland's guidelines were respect for others and responsibility for ones own doing. Although Roland was a private person who valued his integrity, he had a great interest in people. He was an often seen guest at dinners and other social events, where his wry humor together with an outstanding memory and affection for details spurred many a discussion and caused much laughter. At such occasions Roland also excelled as a photographer; in particular, he had an eye for catching the mood and character of the people around him. With his strong personality and firm belief in science as a guiding star, Roland leaves behind a memory of one who chose a way through life that was truly his own.

Photo courtesy of C.-I. Björnsson

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