It’s been a conclusive couple of weeks. There’s an air of convergence and finality. Things feel like they are spiralling to a close. There are pointers everywhere I look.
Starting with the bad. Steven Hawking recently passed away. I thought he was going to live forever. They say folk only say good things about you at your funeral. But Professor Hawking had defied all expectations and lived to a ripe old age. Because of his iconic demeanour I was constantly in awe of what he achieved whilst he was alive, theories and everything.
Unlike cyclists, I’ve never really met any famous physicists though I had the pleasure of attending lectures given by Professor Higgs (before he became famous out-with the Physics community) whilst studying at Edinburgh University. I attended his introduction to General Relativity and decided Fluid Dynamics was more my thing. And this was when I met Professor Clive Greated.
Clive was a complete and utter conundrum which is why I respect him so much. Underestimate him (and many did) at your peril. Clive wasn’t so much a nutty Professor, just a complete nutter. Sometimes you would struggle to to believe he was a Professor, let alone in Physics, let alone in one of the most challenging branches of Physics - Fluid Dynamics. He had a positive outlook, huge smile and said “Yes” to anything by default. For this reason people took him for granted. I too got frustrated with him and yes, I took him for granted too. My PhD was going nowhere. I had little to no direction from Clive and decided to learn Russian at the University’s night classes just to stop me from going insane. I was expecting him to hand me my PhD on a plate. One of my flatmates was a chemist and all she had to do was turn up at 9am, leave at 5pm, do what her supervisor instructed and ta-da after three years of wash, rinse, repeat - PhD!
Not with Clive, no Sir. After two years of arsing about I was going nowhere fast. More frustration with a severely banjo-ed knee that ended any dwindling hope of a late football career and ACL reconstruction beckoned (and I still can’t bend my leg right beyond 90 degrees), which meant mountain biking was off the cards as was the daily cycle to the campus and home.
The rehab taught me a lot. Discipline, determination, motivation, faith and hope. There would be no glory. I would no longer be a two footed footballer and at 27 years old, I would never play at a level I believed I could attain.
Acceptance, accountability, ownership. Time to grow up Mr Entwistle!
That was a seminal moment. At that point, I’d chanced it and got away with doing just about enough to get by. But now I had to take responsibility for myself and my own actions. I saw things from a completely different perspective. I somehow managed to pull my head out of my own ass and everything smelled of roses instead of manure.
So, I devised my own PhD. I collaborated with other institutions and I jumped on a plane and delivered my research on secondary cell turbulence to a audience of glum looking Russians in St Petersburg who just stared at me with little or no emotion and certainly no questions. I organised my own travel, got my own Visa and travelled on my own. Clive "just" signed everything off and gave me a few tips and pointers and wished me the best of luck. Little did I know.
Within a year I was back walking again (albeit with a limp) sitting in my PhD viva with Clive and an external examiner who said it was one of the best PhD theses he’d ever read and congratulated me on taking the hard option with saddling myself with different branches of physics (optics, CFD, mechanics) when I could have easily gone for the “conveyor belt” option (i.e. read someone’s thesis and repeat/refine/evolve). And because I hadn’t taken a trip down easy street I’d found something that theory and mathematics predicted but no-one had managed to successfully measure.
Not quite the Higgs boson. Ha, far from it! There was no Nobel Prize for this totally insignificant contribution to physics, but it was worthy of a doctorate and a career in fluid dynamics beckoned with funding secured to investigate and understand the Physics of oceanic oil slicks. For once I was in demand and for once I felt I’d achieved something good and for once I felt I’d done something useful. More importantly I’d learned a lot about myself.
But I couldn’t have done it all without my colleagues, friends, family and of course, Professor Greated. He was not so much my PhD supervisor, but my mentor. I didn’t do it all myself, I did it with the subtle genius of Clive. Whenever you went to see him, he would always help you, steer you in the right direction, encourage you and support you without taking any of the credit. He would never hassle you or manage you either. He left you to your own devices and let you get on with it. If you needed him, his door was always open.
He was a generous, funny and warm man. He must be the only guy that hates fireworks but would have a massive party at his house on Guy Fawkes' night complete with his own jazz band and super high jinks. We supplied the beer, tobacco, industrial sized rockets and air bombs. Clive’s parties were the highlight of the year and Clive’s brilliant wife was the perfect hostess. Fun, laughter and passing out in his garden was guaranteed.
I once tried to invite him to one of our soirees as a way of a thank you. He seemed a bit reluctant. In retrospect I didn’t blame him. Physics in the 90s was predominantly male (probably still is) and so were our parties. He had better things to do than hang out with a bunch of scruffy blokes drinking wine so cheap it came in a plastic bottle (we joked it was a Spanish vintage called “Dom Es Tos”). He was always so far ahead of us and his answer was utter genius…
“Are there going to be any birds there?” he said with the grin of a smiling assassin. It was a gentle put down, mischievous, wonderfully ironic and like Clive, utterly unpredictable.
Along with Professor Hawking, Clive passed away last month. The universe has two more stars from the Physics world and it has taken nearly twenty years to realise…
sometimes we only appreciate things when they’re gone - me included.