Paul, and the PhD

Paul is one of the quirkier, and cooler, people I have met here.
Single-handing around the world from Vancouver, via the Southern
Ocean, with a tight budget and a very big heart. He flies a Canadian
flag, and has gentle Canadian overtones to his voice, but if you
listen carefully there's a born and bred scouser underneath. And what
a great Liverpudlian ambassador he is too. His father was a merchant
seaman from China, and his mother from Manchester I think. I'll have
to ask,- I asked far more about his Dad as he sounded so interesting.
He only ever spoke a pidgin English, with his kids as well, and could
cook perfect rice every time. Cover the rice with cold water so that
it comes just over your thumb, was that it?, and cook until all
absorbed. Must pay more attention.

Anyway, there are many interesting things about Paul, not just his
youth. On his way here he floated adrift with no wind for six months,
almost running out of both food and water, he speaks fluent Portugese
having lived in Brazil for several years, he travelled from here to
Buenos Aires and back in winter on a folding bike brought on his boat,
and he makes a mean cup of tea. The best bit though? He's a full-on
theoretical phycisist.

Initially when I caught him scribbling away, filling his notepad with
mathematical symbols, I thought this was an inspired way to pass time
through the dismal and endless rain of Puerto Montt. More recently,
however, he's been spied deriving even on sunny days. "I know, I know
I should be out there getting my boat ready, but I just really think I
might get something out of this…" and back he goes to his notebook,
squeezing those equations, scribbling furiously. Andy once decided to
creep up on him unawares; I was mortified… that one innocent 'boo'
might have undone three weeks of good thinking. And so I became very
nostalgic for academia, and a world where it's good to spend the day,-
thinking.

Alas, all who live and work in academia know this isn't the truth at
all, not even during a sabbatical. And Paul probably gets a lot more
pure thinking time on his boat as he sails than ever he did within
University walls. And he still has a good relationship with his home
University so he can publish while 'on the road'. Hey, that's a good
idea, a University Without Walls. I had to ask, what's he working on?
Quarternions, equations invented by Hamilton. Something to do with
four dimensional complex numbers but beyond that I was lost, which was
a shame, as I'd really like to get it, at least a little bit.

"What do you all do to occupy your minds then?", Paul once asked to an
assembled crew of tea drinkers in our cockpit. David, he fixes stuff.
Andy, he, well…actually, he's very good at hanging out with the
world. It's one of his qualities that I envy most, and am least good
at. I'm a pretty good daydreamer but without some kind of focussed
activity to bring me back they tend to get a bit dramatic, frequently
ending with deaths, storms, and occasionally time travel. Looking at
other boats, the cruising parents out there are of course eternally
occupied with parenting, and one woman I met loves to listen to
audiobooks on long passages. I have no idea what I'll do,- it's one of
the scarier aspects to the next year for me. In fact, I'm that scared
that I've even tried to learn how to to crochet and bake. I kid you
not.

So one day Paul and I were chatting, about everything and not very
much at all, and I mentioned that I thought building/refitting a boat
was a bit like doing a PhD. He pushed me, ofcourse, and we actually
got quite far with it. There are of course massive differences too, so
I requalified. Refitting a boat would be like doing a PhD if you were
trying to do something entirely new, and also documented every
decision you made along the way, and justified it based on other
people's previous experience, and then wrote a book about it at the
end explaining why you did what you did and how your boat is just ever
so slightly different from any other boat, and how this contributes to
the overall development of boats. So, really, building a boat is
nothing like doing a PhD at all, except for all the slog, all the
endless problems that you meet and have to find a solution to, all the
new skills you never wanted to have that it demands you learn, and
hopefully the satisfaction at the end. A PhD should be a ticket to
exploring the waves of your mind; a boat, well… just a different way
to explore the world.

In the last few days Paul has set off for South Georgia, and then
South Africa. He will, without doubt, encounter the unknown. Big seas,
beautiful albatrosses, stunning landscapes, terrible weather, and a
lot of time with himself. Many people here think he's crazy,- he's not
taking any means for outward communication such as a satellite phone
or radio transmitter, he's not downloading weather data every three
hours like most of us trying to play God, he's not expecting it to be
easy, or trying to make it easy. But he's prepared, and he's ready,
and mosty importantly he knows how to make an excellent brew, and sit,
and think.

One thought on “Paul, and the PhD

  1. Glad you've met him! He sounds great, and very inspiring. I'm so happy to hear of these big active brains travelling round the world, doing what they are here to do, and living simply.

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