Greg Woodford is a U3APP tutor for Spanish Beginners/Intermediate, Dancing on Fridays and “What is Earth” (2021/2).
I am intrigued by the diversity of subject areas you are involved with at U3APP, namely, Spanish language, dance, and science. What profession did you retire from?
“Well, I retired inadvertently about ten years ago. I have worked in everything relating to business consulting and project management, including Real-Time control systems”, which relates to computer controlled machinery used in financial and data processing and engineering.
Greg spent his early childhood in Charters Towers, a gold mining town in North Queensland. “I actually grew up 50 metres from a mine on the other side of the fence.” He recalls having “lots of adventures in the block next door, despite being forbidden to go there” with his 7 siblings, (later 9). Greg was 10 years old when the family moved to Brisbane.
As a 14 year old, Greg was very interested in physics, chemistry, geology, and astronomy. “I absorbed just about every book in the local library, absolutely loved it. I used to get my star map and go into the back garden in the dark, with my little torch and look at the sky.”
Did you know that you had an aptitude for math? “No not particularly.” Following an Aptitude Test in Year 11, Greg was told, “you can do anything you want.” He recalls feeling a bit disappointed, seeking more specific guidance at that time.
Greg obtained a classical applied mathematics degree at Queensland University, St Lucia, and subsequently a PhD from ANU in Mathematics, “Numerical Mathematics, actually.” Greg translates, while smiling, “it’s how to do big sums using computers.”
Greg reflects that after graduating in the early 70s, “it was a marvellous time. ANU was right up there with Stanford University, MIT and others, which were really the centre, in the western world, for computing development. The world was moving towards computers. So, I completed a PhD in big sums. When I first went to ANU, I knew nothing about computers. The result has stood me in good stead,” in respect to future employment opportunities.
Subsequent to obtaining his PhD at ANU, Greg worked there for six months as a computer programmer. Wishing to expand his travel experience, he moved to the UK having obtained employment at Dundee University in Scotland, also enjoying the opportunity “to see a bit of the world.”
Greg spent 3 years at Dundee University. He was offered a job at Cambridge but joined Shell Research for 3 years instead. Then he moved to Shell International in London, working in logistics and with Shell UK in merchant banking. In total Greg spent 12 years in the UK.
Greg holds strong views in relation to academic research. ”My experience of academic life is that it is full of hypocrisy and dishonesty … so I moved to industrial research.”
Explaining his views further, Greg maintains that intellectual dishonesty relates to his view that it seemed to be more of an issue as to who did the research, than whether it was meaningful research. “Publish or perish encourages that. I did not want to be part of that rat race, so I moved into industrial research.” With some amusement Greg explained however that this environment was even more difficult. Not only were you required to investigate the problems, “you had to get an answer, no mercy was shown.”
Was there any particular area of industrial research that you were focused on? “I was the mathematician assisting various technology people to get their results. I was working with research engineers and research scientists. There is some brilliant stuff being done in the industrial research labs. But the thing is, you don’t have time to write it up because someone has to pay for your research.”
Greg explains further that the research labs were paid for the work the customer wanted but this same customer was not particularly interested in “paying for your glory to publish your paper. It’s a pity as that same process happens in many industrial research labs.”
“There’s a huge knowledge base, which just never gets written up and never sees the light of day. Maybe 5, 10, 20 years later, it finally gets around to being researched in a university environment and maybe comes good.” On a personal level however, “it was fine, I had a great time.”
Returning to Brisbane, Greg asserts that “Shell Australia didn’t want me. I was a bit too senior for their hierarchy, so I started up a video game business.” In the late 80’s, interest in computer games was escalating. “It was all about the game machine down at the local store, cutting edge stuff really.”
Together with his brother and a colleague they started up a terrazzo business however after 18 months, Greg decided that masonry “was not my future” and commenced consulting at the interface between business and IT.
Greg moved to Melbourne 1992, with his family and worked mainly as a business consultant, “which I did until I was a grey-haired grandad.” However younger recruiters thought that “being grey haired I didn’t/couldn’t know anything, so I retired. I quickly found other interesting things to do. I’d recommend it to anyone, in fact.”
What led you to write your book, ‘What is Earth’ that underpinned your Zoom course last year? Greg recalls that he commenced writing during the Covid-19 lockdown period. For some time, he had “toyed” with the idea of writing a book about the story of the earth. He wrote it in about 4 weeks, drawing on his existing knowledge and available resources. The book is completed, and he is thinking about self-publishing.
Greg has ideas for another book, relating to the size of the universe, and what is in it. He admits, “I am a bit of a rebel”, for instance, referring to current theories that the universe is expanding, “well, that’s the theory. I do not accept all the current paradigms in science.” Greg expounded his views further, “if you work in academic circles, you certainly risk your career if you step away from the paradigm.” However, mathematical foundations and some current physical rationale and observations are incompatible. Greg acknowledges, “but you have to start somewhere so that you can go on to somewhere else.” He surmises, “I started my journey with science when I was about 14, and I have never stopped.”
Moving away from science, what led to your interest in Spanish? About 12 years ago, Greg and his partner Judy commenced tango classes. ”Being inquisitive”, this led to his interest in the Spanish language. Greg subsequently attended Spanish classes at U3A in Bayside and Glen Eira, finally attending Victorino Rodriguez’ class at U3APP. However, following Victorino spending a period of time overseas and subsequent serious health issues, fellow students suggested that Greg take over the class.
In what way do you think U3A adds value to learning a language for instance? Greg summarised, “first off, it is a vehicle for people to meet each other, to socialise, to have some fun. If they learn anything, it is a complete bonus. That is the way I treat the Spanish class, there is no exam, basically a group of friends learning together, in a semi-serious way, but with no pressure.”
And ballroom dancing? Greg first started dancing when he attended an all-boys school. ”I can remember when we were in Year 11, there were 4 of us in the playground complaining that we never met any girls.” A teacher asked them what their “deep and meaningful conversation” was about. “Unbeknown to us, he was actually a ballroom dance teacher in his private life.” He organised for the local girls’ school bus to bring the girls over to join the new dance classes. “It was brilliant.”
Greg is interested in the “geometry of the movements, which together with the partner, is quite complicated.” Explaining further, “one of the things about dancing is that you may think you know how to dance really well, but a moment’s inattention and you stuff up. So, you really need to be on the ball mentally, even when you are dancing. If you do a lot, you get physically fit. After you dance for two or three hours, you can get a bit sweaty.”
Greg developed a passion for ‘freestyle dancing’. He explained, “this is when you walk onto the floor with a partner, you have no idea what is going to happen. There is just the two of you and the music, then something happens. It’s terrifying, in a way, but a lot of fun.”
Elaborating further, “it is an alternative to sequence dancing, which is a prearranged choreographed pattern of steps.” You learn the patterns such as Alpha Waltz or the Balmoral Blues, “When a whole room does the same dance, it looks fantastic.”
Greg teaches freestyle dancing with U3APP at the South Melbourne Community Centre. However, he comments, “there are not enough men… they think dancing is not a man’s thing. If only they knew that it is such a physical thing, sweat on the brow!”
It is also very intellectual, as the dancer needs to train their brain to make movements without having to think about them. “One of the things about dancing is that you meet a lot of very nice people. They all want to have fun and exercise.”
Greg and his partner Judy continue to attend tango classes, “Argentine tango is very subtle, it is not a style of dance, rather it teaches you how to move to music. You move as a couple, not just individually, it is actually very complicated to learn that process.” Greg also enjoys ‘rock and roll’, swing and related dance moves. Having danced in this way for the past fourteen years or so, “I’d like to say, I’m quite reasonable at it.” And there is more, Greg has a black belt in Karate!
Returning to the future, given your work history with Shell, what is your view of where the fuel resource industries are heading? Greg believes that the future of the oil and gas industry is secure, “probably for the next 40 or 50 years, to be quite honest. That is not because I think we shouldn’t move to renewable fuels because they really make more sense. But the reality is that the world currently depends on fossil fuels for its energy supply. It is an immense industry.” The availability of raw materials is a problem. Also, batteries are not sophisticated enough as yet but they’ll improve. Referring to the inequity, in respect to the western world being privileged, “3 billion people get their energy from burning cow dung. We have to somehow bring that half of the global community up from poverty to a reasonable standard of living.” However, “I am optimistic about it actually, overall.”
Greg has 3 children, also 7 grandchildren. He and his partner Judy have separate families and they both enjoy sharing time with them all, including interstate visits as he has a daughter in Sydney. “We all enjoy each other’s company.” Greg has no plans to travel overseas at this time.
Looking back, Greg reflects that his mother perhaps had “the biggest influence on my life overall.” She came from a large family “but the key characteristic from this perspective is that she was a great supporter of education…to give you opportunities to get through life.”
How would you sum up what U3A has meant to you and others over these past years? “I think it is an amazing facility for all, but for older people especially. I retired a bit early, inadvertently.” Finishing up his last contract, Greg spent 9 months looking for other opportunities, “mentally I was not prepared to retire.” His partner Judy suggested that he “give it a break.” Through their love of dance, they were introduced to U3A and subsequently to other activities. Since then, “neither of us has looked back.”
Interestingly, Greg’s diverse and eclectic interests, in math, computing, science, languages, and dance, seem to coalesce. Each discipline perhaps influences the other, as in the mental prowess needed for complex synchronicity with a dance partner, the construct of languages, scrutinising the universe.
Greg acknowledges he has been a bit of a “rebel”, in respect to conforming to the expected norms in some intellectual and industrial environments. This in no way has hampered his enthusiasm to keep on learning. “You have got to keep learning, keep progressing, and not give up.” These same attributes underpin the value of U3As worldwide.
Greg Woodford was interviewed by Felicity May