Obituary: Ralph Skomski

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Ralph Skomski passed away on April 10, 2022, at 61 years old. He was a professor at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln and his research focuses on the theory of magnetic nanostructures.

Ralph Skomski

* 1961 † April 2022

Born 61 years ago in Berlin, Ralph Skomski was a dedicated scientist, with a firm grounding in classical and quantum physics, who devoted much of his life to magnetism. He studied polymer physics at the TH Merseburg, and obtained his doctorate from the TU Dresden on partially-ordered antiferromagnets, working at the Hochschule für Verkehrswesen beside the Hauptbahnhof, where much of the work in Dresden on magnetism was done at the time. He left the GDR in 1991 for a postdoc at Trinity College Dublin, throwing himself into permanent magnetism and helping us to understand the gas-phase interstitial modification process we had developed for the new rare-earth iron nitride permanent magnets. Ralph participated enthusiastically in the Concerted European Action on Magnets and did the groundwork for the monograph on Permanent Magnetism that was published in 1999.

From Dublin, Ralph went to work for several years with Jürgen Kirschner at the MPI in Halle before taking up a research position in 1998 with Dave Sellmyer’s group at the University of Nebraska, where he remained for the rest of his career.

Ralph was a pencil and paper theorist, who delighted in the insights offered by simple models. His 2008 book Simple Models of Magnetism epitomized his broad-ranging approach to the whole subject, with many simple figures, sometimes quirky, to convey the ideas. His approach to science was direct and practical.

Ralph’s upbringing in the GDR left him with an acute appreciation of European history and politics, and also an ability to analyse his co-workers’ motivations with penetrating clarity. He was forthright and blunt, both rough and subtle. He participated in magnetism conferences every year, mostly in the USA, and he always had something interesting and often topical to report. He did not hesitate to question and correct anyone he thought was mistaken, regardless of the consequences for his career. He was unable to obtain the habilitation in Germany, but in Lincoln, he found the perfect scientific partner in Dave Sellmyer. Ralph was the experimentalist’s theorist and Dave was the theorist’s experimentalist. It was symbiosis for 24 years – a period when joint publications accounted for 60% of each of their outputs. The broad focus was on magnetic nanostructures, for which they will be remembered. They edited a book together in 2006 and contributed chapters to other books. Ralph wrote a definitive review on Nanomagnetics in 2003.

Ralph’s most influential contribution was his analysis of how to build the ultimate exchange spring magnet, the ‘megajoule’ magnet that would double the energy product of the best Nd-Fe-B in a two-phase nanocomposite where soft nanoinclusions amount to about half the volume of a coherent, crystallographically-aligned hard magnetic matrix. Such a magnet could bring a four-fold increase in the efficiency of electrical machines, and change the world. It remains a tantalizing prospect and an open challenge.

Ralph Skomski was an invigorating spirit in applied magnetism. He was kind and knowledgeable about the wide world. A colleague we can ill afford to do without, whose candour, reliability, straightforwardness and enthusiasm for science won him respect on four continents.

Ralph, du hattest recht!
J. M. D. Coey
Dublin, 20 April 2022

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