Sunday, 29 April 2018

Britain is a country which once made and is now diminished by the loss of Paul Younger, its Giant of a Hydrogeology and Environmental Engineering

Paul, whose brilliant mind transported him from his working-class, Geordie roots, growing up on the banks of the Tyne in the 1960s, to professorships at Newcastle and Glasgow Universities and world-wide acclaim for his work on water remediation, has been taken from his family, his profession and Britain at the age of 55.

He described himself on Facebook as : 'Geordie, gadgee, gangrel; Geologist, gaitero, Gàidheal; Grateful, God-lover. Gorrit.?' and was one of those rare individuals who filled the room with sun and relished life, as witnessed when he seized the opportunity to break into song in gaelic :

Ben Cruachan. Ben Cruachan. Ben Cruachan.
I take great pleasure in you,
Ben Cruachan, beyond a fells
with every burn running through your dells.

He was a deeply spiritual man who took his Christianity very seriously, carried out a daily spiritual exercise and kept a spiritual journal, which in 2016, when he was 53, recorded his 'relentless grappling with life’s darkest challenges.' He recalled that the first wedding of one of his three sons he closed his 'journal entry for 30 January 2016 with this question : 'What are you preparing me for, Lord? No answer was immediately forthcoming, but the uninvited meditations on suffering and death persisted unabated. Then suddenly, six months later, I got an unequivocal answer.' 

The answer was his experience of his loss of speech,'expressive dysphasia,' which was caused by a brain tumour. Specifically, he recalled : 'The type of cancer they found (glioblastoma multiforme, GBM) is of ‘Grade 4’—the most aggressive category—and would therefore be expected to recur. GBM is regarded as incurable and terminal.' He was told that he probably had 15 months to live. In the event, buoyed up by the love of family and friends and his religious faith, Paul lived another 19 months.

Paul was born in 1963 in Hebburn, County Durham, a small town situated on the south bank of the River Tyne in North East England, sandwiched between the towns of Jarrow and Gateshead and was raised in a shipyard house on the banks of the River. He grew up, with his three siblings, in the shadow of the last of the big ships constructed in the yards, where his father worked as a ship welder and member of 'shell squad', the select group, who worked with such precision, that they were chosen to work on the outside of the ship.

He was proud of his working class roots : Grandad Younger was a miner at Dunston and his mother's family were Irish immigrants who worked in the shipyards. It was from her that he got his Roman Catholic religion, which dictated that he attended St Aloysius Primary School in Hebburn. He also inherited her love of music. She was an accomplished singer and pianist and the whole family would gather to sing traditional Geordie and Irish songs.

He remembered childhood summer days spent with friends hitching the ferry across the River to Wallsend and back for free, sitting on the roof and ringing the bell when it reached its destination or playing on the man-made hills next to his house which they scrambled up and slid down.
In 2015 he was the guest on BBC Radio 4's 'The Life Scientific' and recalled that it was only later that : "I finally learnt that they were ballast hills and they were piles of muck basically that had been dredged up by the collier boats from the bed of the River Thames. When they off-loaded the coal to get the balance of the ship right to come back of the ship right to come back to the Tyne they'd just dredge up some sediment. The Thames is predominantly flint that's been eroded out the chalk and I didn't know any of this when I first used to slide down this ballast hill in me cowboy suit but I would pick up these flints and take them back to the back lane with me friends who quickly showed me you could make sparks with them on the kerb and on each other and I just loved the shape of them. They're really weird-looking things flints, they're strange bulbous shapes. I still find them fascinating. I still have one that keeps me office door open to this present day."

The River dominated their lives :"In those days, the 1960s, it was always so busy and noisy," but the sharp decline in the shipbuilding industry meant "by the time you got to the 70s the wheels started coming off.”  His Father was made redundant three times, money was tight and his Mother had to go out to work to support the family. Paul remembered the skillful way his Father slipped a thin welding rod into the envelope containing his pay packet and winding a pound note tightly around it so as to be able to pull it out without breaking the seal and incurring the wrath of his Mother - “her indoors”.

In search of work, his father moved the family to Jarrow and Paul went to St Matthew’s Junior School and then, in 1974, St Joseph’s Grammar Technical School with its motto, 'The Love of Christ Spurs Us On'. On his own admission, Paul wasn’t as good at science at school as he was at English and humanities, but signed up for Science 'A' levels on the basis that he could keep abreast of literature and languages in his spare time and in 1980 secured a grant and took himself off to Newcastle University to study for a degree in Geology. It was, however, towards the end of his time as an undergraduate, in 1984, that he left behind his teenage ambition to enter the priesthood having fallen "head over heels in love with a woman.”

The object of his affection was an American student he had met on her gap year at Newcastle and as a result he followed her to the States, having won a scholarship to study for a master's degree at Oklahoma State University. The fact that she gave him the elbow after just a couple of weeks saw him throw himself into with vigour and he found he loved it. It was his first real taste of the importance of water and in studying groundwater, he made friends with members of native American tribes such as the Cherokee and Navajo and did voluntary work helping remote indigenous communities to get access to reliable water supplies.

In 1986, after the completion of his masters degree, he returned to Britain and began looking for research posts at universities, eventually ending up back in Newcastle and for his PhD, looked at the interaction of groundwater and river water. After three years research he confessed that he was “totally sick of university, so I left vowing never to come back”. He had, however, met his future wife, Louise, at the University Catholic Society and they had married when he was 25 in 1988.

Paul confessed to the BBC : "To be perfectly frank, I went into hyhrogeology for purely mercenary reasons, really - that I wanted a job; that was a growth area at the time" and "water is about giving people clean water to drink, putting a safe distance between them and their waste and it's hard to argue with its social value." "It suited me, a lot, to do something that assuaged me social conscience, but used me geology. But to be honest when I went into it I was worried I would't like it enough as the pure geology, but actually, I loved it. Absolutely loved it and still do. I get so much pleasure now out of going and looking at a spring line or looking at a river and figuring out how its interacting with the water in the ground around it."

In his first job he worked for National Rivers Authority, where part of his time was spent drilling holes around Northumberland and helping to secure the water supply for Berwick. He confessed : “I still get quite a kick when I’m driving past Berwick and think ‘you’re all drinking water that we found’.” Then, utilising his fluent Spanish, it was South America, where he took up a post as a groundwater engineer in the Bolivian Altiplano doing the same for indigenous tribes there.

Back in Britain, at the age of 29 in 1992, he, despite his earlier pledge, once again found himself at Newcastle University and very much in need of a job after the birth of his twins, Callum and Dominic, who joined their two year old brother, Thomas. Not unsurprisingly, given his brilliance, he progressed from lecturer, to Professor of Hydrogeochemical Engineering, HSBC Professor of Energy and Environment, Director of the Sir Joseph Swan Institute for Energy Research, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Engagement and Founder-Director of the Institute for Sustainability.

Often his work involved advising on the problems created by the groundwater pollution caused by old mining deposits : "In the North East, to make the historic coal mining industry here possible, the mines went deeper, deeper and deeper to find unmined seems of coal and as they went deeper they're ever further below the water table. And so vasts amount of water had to be pumped out of the mines, which is OK, but the problem comes precisely when you stop mining, because you've got 300 years of crud has accumulated in the ventilated part of the sub-surface that's been opened up with tunnels, none of which has ever been ever been flooded before. Then you suddenly flood the lot and all of that stuff goes into solution in a drastic hurry and you go from water that was relatively benign, during the actual mining operations, to extremely polluted water. So that issue came surging up, literally, as the waters are surging up underground it came surging up for me as a professional."

Paul worked for just under 20 years at Newcastle University and in 2012 he moved north of the border to occupy Glasgow University’s prestigious Rankine Chair of Engineering and was also  Professor of Energy Engineering. At his inaugural Rankine Chair lecture he began by breaking into song in gaelic after he had been introduced (6 minutes into the lecture). In the same vein, he had, on occasion, livened up proceedings at the University Adam Smith Club by singing the minutes.

Paul said, with perfect self-effacement : “I am grateful for the gifts I have, but none of them are down to me. They are things I’ve found I can do well and it’s not for me to sit and congratulate myself, but to see to what good I can put them. I want to help solve people’s problems, big social, cultural and economic problems. What I don’t want to be is an isolated superhero, it’s not realistic. The real saving the world is done in collaboration with others. So as far as I make any contribution to improving the world, I do it with others.”

He faced death with equanimity : 'While it is true that I cannot dictate what blessing God chooses to grant me, it is not only legitimate, but indeed incumbent upon me, to ask to remain able to pursue my vocation for my family, community and society. Yet I must accept that I cannot choose my own path' and 'I an a human being, loved by God and surrounded on all sides by love and care. The outcome is ultimately in God's hands.'

Professor John Marsh said of Paul : "Working with him was a delight, he was a true polymath, whose professional interests encompassed all the engineering disciplines and beyond, and whose personal interests included languages, music and hill walking. Above all, his passion was for people, demonstrated by his love and care of individuals, his appreciation of diverse cultures, his sense of justice, and his determination that developments in technology should lead to a better society. His influence was felt around the world, particularly in South America and Africa where he had several major collaborations. He will be greatly missed."

Professor Chris Day, Vice-Chancellor and President of Newcastle University, said : “It is impossible to sum up Paul in a few sentences – he was a giant of a man in every way and his warmth, enthusiasm and fierce sense of justice permeated everything he did."

 In 2016, just before he received his terminal diagnosis, he delivered his 'What Coal Mining Hydrogeology tells us about the Real Risks of Fracking'

In parallel with his mainstream academic work, Paul founded and directed four companies in the water and energy sectors and authored more than 400 items in the international literature, including the well-received books : 'Mine Water: Hydrology, pollution, remediation' in 2002, 'Groundwater in the Environment : An Introduction' in 2007, 'Water: all that matters' in 2012 and 'Energy: all that matters in 2014.

"Water is life."

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