Paul Rankin obituary

Other lives: Scientist, conservationist, innovator and adventurer

Paul Rankin, my dad, who has died aged 72, was a research physicist and an adventurer. He worked for the electronics company Philips for 36 years, and filed more than 40 patents in that time. He was an innovator, with projects in the favelas in Brazil, the wastes of Mali, the temples of Thailand and the peaks of Peru.

He visited more than 70 countries in his lifetime. After retirement he became involved in research into pangolins in Namibia, helping to track and understand these creatures, sometimes known as scaly anteaters.

The son of headteachers, Mabel (nee Morgan) and Eric Rankin, Paul was born in Lydney, Gloucestershire. The family moved to London, and he was educated at Chislehurst and Sidcup grammar school, then studied physics at Oxford University. After graduating in 1968, he joined Philips’ electronic research laboratories in Redhill, Surrey, as a research physicist, becoming principal scientist. He initiated collaborations with the Royal College of Art and Imperial College London, and travelled to the US as a visiting lecturer at Stanford University and a visiting researcher at the MIT Media Lab.

He was a founder of the Voices in Your Hand project for Philips, enabling people in the shanty towns of Brazil and Peru to access new, low-cost information technologies. In 2001 he won a Winston Churchill memorial trust travelling fellowship, and took a sabbatical to study the cultural impact of the internet on traditional communities in northern Thailand and Mali.

After his retirement in 2004 from Philips, he became a consultant on sustainable development projects, and co-founder of Living Culture Storybases (2005), an oral history project for minority cultures and indigenous peoples in Mali and British Columbia, Canada.

He then got involved in the Pangolin Specialist Group, working in research and conservation, and earned the nickname “pangolin warrior” for his efforts to protect this much-trafficked animal. In 2009 he was joint principal investigator at the Mundulea nature reserve, Namibia, researching the elusive cape pangolin, one of eight threatened species of this genus.

Paul had all sorts of interests beyond his work. He was a sculptor in wood, stone and clay, made mobiles from driftwood and designed and built kites. He trained as a hang-glider pilot, and found freedom flying over the hills of Sussex, the mountains of Yosemite and the beaches of Brazil. He was a gifted and energetic dancer of salsa and bachata. In his 60s he took to the trapeze, building up strength, flexibility and trust with his partner to put together impressive public performances.

Sharing his love of life with us all, never one to follow convention, he turned up to family gatherings in various colourful guises. As a young man, I stopped being mortified with embarrassment and became proud of his uniqueness and flamboyance.

He is survived by his partner of 37 years, Debbie Shaw, and her daughter, Keely; by his sons, Adam, Sam and me, from his marriage to Trudy Bacon, which ended in divorce; and by three grandchildren.

Tobias Rankin

The GuardianTramp

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