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Exploratorium Release: Paul Doherty, Renowned Science Educator, Dies at 69

9/15/2017 8:55:32 AM

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It is with great sorrow that the Exploratorium announces the death of our beloved scientist and educator Paul Doherty, who passed away late in the evening on Thursday, August 17th. Paul left this world peacefully in the presence of loved ones.

Paul was a scientist, educator, mentor, and a compassionate and generous colleague whose influence was felt deeply across the institution, and indeed around the world. He will be remembered for his kindness, humility, intelligence, good humor, and fabulous fashion sense, but perhaps most of all for an unquenchable thirst for knowledge that he managed to inspire in those around him. As one staff member said after learning of his death, “Paul was the best of what the Exploratorium can be, and is.” At the Exploratorium his presence will continue to be felt and we will honor his memory by continuing to work in the service of inquiry-based learning, radical inclusion, and the teaching and investigation of science as a process for understanding the world around us.

Paul was born to George and Genevive Doherty in Boston on July 7, 1948, and grew up in various places east of the Mississippi, moving often for his father’s job as a master mechanic for North American Aviation. One story of Paul’s early childhood relates his curiosity and passion for scientific investigation with a self-designed experiment: at about the age of 3, he tried plugging scissors into an electrical outlet. His interest in electricity only grew in his adult life (as did the number of volts), manifesting itself on the Late Show with David Letterman, where Paul exhibited the power of a Van deGraff generator by turning Letterman into a conduit for 50,000 volts of electricity—enough to pop the popcorn held in the TV show host’s open hand. Given Paul’s creativity and intelligence, anything could be—and nearly everything was—put to use as a tool for learning and teaching.

After graduating high school, Paul attended college at M.I.T., earning an undergraduate degree in 1970 and a Ph.D. in Solid State Physics in 1974. While at M.I.T., Paul was a member of the Air Force R.O.T.C. and worked at Lincoln Labs and the Air Force Cambridge Research Lab at the Hanscomb Air Force base in Massachusetts. Upon graduation, he left the armed forces to join the faculty at Oakland University in Michigan, where he was a tenured professor of physics for 12 years, teaching courses ranging from physics, astronomy, and geology to electronics, computer programming, and meteorology.

In 1986, Paul moved to San Francisco with his wife Ellen to join the staff at the Exploratorium Teacher Institute. He was promoted to co-director in 1990 and shortly thereafter he became the founding director of the Center for Teaching and Learning. During Paul’s tenure he accomplished extraordinary achievements in the service of the Exploratorium’s mission to transform learning worldwide. As an author and science consultant he was involved in the writing of numerous books published by the Exploratorium Press, Chronicle Books, and Klutz Press, including the Explorabook which has sold over a million copies. His most recent book with Cody Cassidy, And Then You’re Dead, was published by Penguin Random House and has been translated into numerous languages and found immense readership. In 1998 Paul and his collaborator Pat Murphy took over Isaac Asimov’s science column in Fantasy & Science Fiction magazine, which they wrote together until his passing. Since 2010, Paul has traveled annually to India as part of a team invited by the Dalai Llama to teach science to Buddhist monks, and with the Exploratorium’s Moving Images team, he broadcast educational science videos from locations as far-reaching as Turkey, Micronesia, and Antarctica. Paul was also a visiting scientist at the Tom Tits Experiment in Sweden, where he visited often.

Paul’s travels and adventures were not limited to science; he was a world-class rock-climber who climbed the face of El Capitan and made the first ascent of a 20,000-foot peak in the Sierra Nevada de Lagunas Bravas in the Andes. In addition to exploring the far reaches of the physical world, he built an online science museum, which he named “Splo,” in the virtual world of Second Life, where he presented science demonstrations and continued to open people’s minds about the possibilities of a life lived without boundaries. When he set his mind to something, there was nothing that could prevent him from accomplishing his goals, whether it was building a “Mars chamber” to be the first person on earth to view Martian snowflakes, mastering a musical instrument called the whirly, or demonstrating the celestial mechanics of an eclipse through ever more ingenious methods.

While at the Exploratorium, Paul continued to teach college-level physics as an adjunct professor at San Francisco State University and to investigate all forms of inquiry and science that caught his interest. His distinction as a teacher and educator was acknowledged with awards from the California Science Education Advisory Council, the American Association of Physics Teachers, and the National Science Teachers Association, and he was named the “Best Science Demonstrator” at the World Congress of Museums in Helsinki in 1996. No matter how much adulation or attention Paul received for his accomplishments, he remained filled with kindness, humility, and inquisitiveness that indicated a willingness to invite anyone and everyone into his quest for understanding. It was this same humility and inquisitiveness that gave Paul his acuity in developing untold lessons and experiments that are being used in science classrooms all across the world.

Paul had a knack for explaining the most complex science at exactly the right level, whether he was talking to children or Buddhist Monks or experts with PhDs in physics. Though he is no longer with us, it is no exaggeration to suggest that Paul’s reach continues to extend across the earth; in the San Francisco Bay Area alone it would be difficult to find a child who has not been taught science by some method or experiment devised by Paul, or who has not been instructed by a teacher who was at one point a student of Paul’s. Far into the future, children on every continent will continue to build their understanding of science because of the generosity and breadth of Paul’s intelligence. The world owes Paul a debt of gratitude, which we can only repay by carrying the light of inquiry he so passionately ignited and fueled throughout his life.

Paul is survived by his wife, Ellen Henson. A celebration of Paul’s life will take place at the Exploratorium on the evening of Friday, October 6th. All are welcome.

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