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Physics, zen and the art of skateboarding

By James Jackson
Chronicle StaffYou’re just as likely to find David “Doddy” Marsh testing the limits of his body at the local skateboard park as you are to find him testing the limits of his mind in front of a chalkboard at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in uptown Waterloo. James Jackson photo.

On the second floor of the maze-like interior of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, there is an office unlike any other in the building.

Yes, a black chalkboard dominates one of the walls and is covered in nearly indecipherable handwriting, equations and graphs, which you’d come to expect in the office of a man who studies the makeup of the galaxy.

And textbooks, half-graded papers and other displays of academia litter the room. There’s even a poster of the world’s most famous physicist of all, Albert Einstein.

Look around a little more closely, however, and something doesn’t seem to fit. This is the office of a theoretical physicist, after all, so why is there a skateboard propped up against the wall? And three or four more skateboards piled underneath it?

This is the office of David “Doddy” Marsh, a 27-year-old theoretical physicist who is coming to the end of his three-year postdoctoral research term at Perimeter. With his brown truckers cap, tousled brown hair, red sneakers and a tattoo that covers much of the inside of his left forearm, Doddy cuts a striking image — one that is quite different from the image of Einstein that hangs on one of his walls.

“Yeah, lots of people are surprised,” said Doddy with a laugh as he leans back in his office chair. “You say we all have this image of a physicist as old Einstein. The famous images of Einstein are when he’s old. But really, Einstein was doing all his amazing work when he didn’t look like that. It was when he was a young, dapper gentleman working at the patent office.”

Doddy’s office at the Perimeter Institute is where the researcher spends his days looking for the secrets of the galaxy. He’s particularly interested in the mystery that is dark matter — a hypothetical material that cannot be seen with telescopes but is, by some accounts, the glue that holds the universe together.

Just beyond his office window and a few hundred metres from Perimeter is the entrance of Waterloo Park, home to Doddy’s second office — the city’s popular skateboard park. If Doddy needs to refocus or get away from his work for a while, that’s where you’ll find him.

“During the week in the summer I don’t even take my skateboard home, I keep it in the office,” he said. “Over lunch break or for an afternoon I’ll go down to the skateboard park to clear my head.”

The very nature of their work means physicists have an innate understanding of mass, momentum and angular trajection, but has that worked to Doddy’s advantage when he’s grinding or kick flipping through the skate park?

“In no sense does doing physics help my skateboarding. It’s got to be such a natural thing that thinking about skateboarding is bad,” he said. He pauses for a moment then laughs. “If it did, there’d be loads of physicists out skateboarding.”

It works the other way around, though, as skateboarding has helped him when it comes to physics. It provides an important physical outlet for his body when his mind seems incapable of getting over a particular mental hurdle.

The winter poses a unique challenge though, as Doddy must find an indoor skateboard park to release his energy, rather than the outdoor park just steps from his office.

“It’s harder in the winter but you have to keep going,” Doddy said.

He got his first skateboard from his parents as a Christmas gift when he was about 12 years old, and first developed an interest in the sport by playing the popular Tony Hawk Pro Skater video game on Playstation, released in 1999.

“Very quickly you realize this is not as easy as a computer game, but it’s much more fun,” he said. “Skateboarding is so much more than a game.

“It really just takes over your life because you have to do it every day or a good number of hours every week, or you’re not going to get anywhere.”

It was around the same time that Doddy developed a love for physics. Born in Liverpool, England and the son of two math teachers, he’s always had an aptitude for math, but it was when he was learning about the periodic table from his high school chemistry teacher and about how each element is formed that he decided he wanted to delve deeper into physics.

“That made me pay more attention in my physics class and I thought ‘this is really cool.’”

When it came time to choose a university, part of his decision was based on which university towns had the best skateboard facilities.

“I did my undergraduate degree at Edinburgh University and one of the main reasons I wanted to go there is not only is it one of the best universities in the U.K., but Scotland is so damn good for skateboarding,” Doddy said. “In particular a place called Livingston, which is one of the spirtual homes of U.K. skateboarding.”

While away at university, he also developed an interest in Zen Buddhism and the meditation techniques he learned have helped him clear his mind when the snow and ice have kept the skateboard park in Waterloo closed.

“I don’t meditate half as much as I used to or half as much as I’d like to,” he said, adding only science informs his research. “There’s no sense in which Buddhism says ‘have this idea about physics.’ It would be silly to let anything other than physics influence my ideas about physics.”

He eventually got his PhD in theoretical physics from University College, Oxford and has been working at Perimeter since 2012. This September marks the end of his three-year postdoctoral work and he has already applied to similar positions in Canada, the United States and the U.K.

After a second postdoctoral term he will look for a permanent job as a lecturer or a professor.

The life of a postdoctoral researcher can be a transient one since people are moving from community to community every few years and are not usually able to put down many roots, Doddy said. Skateboarding, however, has helped him meet new people outside the scientific sphere. One of the best parts about his job is the way it allows him to travel, and travel allows him to explore new skateboard areas around the world — from Texas and San Francisco to Waterloo and Scotland.

“I feel like a local here because I can go into the skateshop and hang out for a while, or I can go into Abe Erb’s where a friend works behind the bar and I met him through skateboarding,” he said.

“Skateboarders are particularly friendly people and the skateboarding community here has been really welcoming to me.”

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