Fellow of the RAS, stellar spectroscopist and dedicated teacher.
Keith Colin Smith died on 3 June 2000 at the age of 35, after a five-year battle against progressive paralysis due to Motor Neurone Disease (or Lou Gherig Disease as it is known in the USA). Keith had been an undergraduate in astronomy at UCL (BSc 1986), and stayed on to complete his PhD (1992) and six years as a postdoctoral researcher in the department, until ill health forced him to seek premature retirement in March 1998. An outstanding investigator in the fields of stellar spectroscopy and the modelling of stellar atmospheres, he was also a gifted teacher, having devoted two-and-a-half years as a Senior Demonstrator at the University of London Observatory to the teaching of Observational Astronomy courses.
Keith came from Eltham in southeast London, where he attended Colfe's School. He arrived at UCL in October 1983 where he proceeded to gain first class honours and several prizes for academic performance. His final year prize-winning project was an analysis of the ultraviolet spectra of Vega and Omicron Pegasi, that was described by the project moderator as “of a standard expected in a strong Master's dissertation”. This work was later employed as the background for the method he used to define the “line-free continuum” in hopelessly blended ultraviolet spectra.
Keith's initial research for his PhD produced a remarkable opus: a complete analysis of the abundances of elements observed in the IUE spectra of Mercury–Manganese stars. He also extended his previous work on the low metal abundances observed in Vega. Much of this work was published during the 1990s in a series of 10 papers. During this work he showed that he was equally at home as an observer and as a theoretician and programmer. Regrettably, a few of these results remain only in thesis form or as conference contributions, as he was unable to complete preparation for publication before he retired.
Keith remained at UCL as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow, working on theoretical and observational studies of O stars. He used his expertise in spectroscopic modelling in a series of investigations of O-supergiant spectra. His final paper (1998 MNRAS 299 1146) was a seminal study of the effects of microturbulence in the interpretation of O stars.
During his brief career, Keith was author or co-author of 13 long papers in refereed journals, 7 major conference contributions, 6 conference abstracts, plus various reviews and notes. His detailed review paper on chemically peculiar hot stars (1996 Astrophys. Space Sci. 237 77–105) remains one of the most useful summaries of the field to date. A check of the ISI citations index shows that his work is increasingly cited, though Keith himself was quick to point out the potential difficulties of the “Smith effect” in bibliographic evaluation of research by citation.
Before illness made it impossible to pursue outdoor activities, Keith was ever keen to explore and take up new physical challenges. One day he decided to take up windsurfing during an IAU Symposium at Golden Sands, Bulgaria. Time and again, he would climb on the rented board, sail for a few seconds, fall off or get knocked off, yet try again. Gradually, he taught himself to stay afloat, and despite amassing a few bruises from being hit by the boom, by the end of the day he was able to stay afloat for minutes at a time, cutting a dashing figure as he skimmed over the waves. Other memorable episodes included scuba diving, where he took advantage of observing trips to the AAO to explore the Great Barrier Reef, and, most spectacularly, his bungee jump.
It was as a postgraduate student attending one of the department's annual Cumberland Lodge weekends in Windsor Great Park that Keith first met Joan Furlong, then an undergraduate student in physics. It was evident to everyone by the time Joan graduated that they were absolutely devoted to one another, and eventually they were married in an unforgettable outdoor ceremony on the romantic tropical island of Mauritius. Their union is commemorated in the assignment of the name “Kejosmith” to minor planet 5402.
As Keith's illness progressed, he was unable to continue to commute to UCL every day, and a place for him was found closer to his home, at the University of London Observatory at Mill Hill, where with the aid of wheelchair ramps and a specially equipped laptop computer he was able to continue his research until his body simply was no longer up to the job, even though his mind was as sharp as ever.
His death at a tragically early age, after much suffering, deprives us of a talented young scientist who had much to contribute to research and teaching. All of us extend our heartfelt sympathy to Joan, and to Keith's parents and brother. .
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