Saturday, August 26, 2017

In Memorium: Paul Doherty

One of my personal mentors was a very down-to-earth Physics celebrity, Dr. Paul Doherty of the Exploratorium. I met Paul within a month of my first year of teaching as part of the New Teacher Institute so he has been a major influence on me. Paul passed after a battle with cancer last week. Despite knowing his time was near, like many I was wrecked at the news. We had all secretly hoped that he would make it to see another solar eclipse but it was not to be. During the eclipse I thought of Paul and the sheer joy he had at experiencing such beauty in science and nature.

Every teacher that has been a part of the Summer Teacher Institute, New Teacher Institute, conference or public outreach at the Exploratorium knew Paul. This was not just because he was a memorable guy, although he certainly was, but because he always tried to get to know everyone. His enthusiasm and curiosity were as infectious as his smile. He seemed to know everything, able to speak on anything related to Physics, and most things in other fields of science. Once while watching the credits of a science documentary I saw "Thanks to Paul Doherty, Science Historical Consultant," and when I asked him about it he said, "Yeah I was just helping them out." He's written books and papers, developed exhibits and more demonstrations and educational activities than you can count. When Paul developed an activity it was hands on, used easy to access materials, and most importantly for teachers, worked every time. He enjoyed playing the whirly, playing with flashlights and was an Iron Science Teacher champion.

Paul made the intricacies of the world easy to understand; he could answer complex questions with a pencil or a telephone cord. He absolutely delighted in every question that was asked of him and he had a few common responses:

"I don't know, let's try it!"
"Well ... it's more complicated than that."
"What do you think?" 

He was the smartest man I have ever known and he was perfectly comfortable saying "I don't know." The power in that was palpable. When I asked him a question and he countered with asking me my opinion I no longer felt ashamed at not knowing but excited at the prospect of figuring it out on my own with Paul as a guide. I can say for certain that knowing Paul made me a better teacher because he was an amazing teacher. They say a teacher's influence is hard to measure and I would argue that Paul's reach is truly immeasurable. He helped hundreds of teachers who in turn have each taught or will continue to teach thousands.

Julie Yu of the Exploratorium put together this video of Paul from an interview for the museum. It both warms my heart and saddens me to see Paul speak again. Every response is very quintessential "Paul." I may watch it when I need to remember why I teach, or just when I miss him.

Paul's family has set up a page for sharing stories and thoughts of Paul. If you knew him I encourage you to leave a response. Some of what I wrote about Paul is below:

"...the most important things I learned from you was to keep the wonder, to not be afraid of not knowing to be fascinated with learning and to forever be curious. Over a year ago you wisely responded to a teacher's question with "The best gift  for a physics professor is a puzzle they don't don't understand." You encouraged me to delve deeper, gave me permission to have fun and will forever be an inspiration."

May we all teach as Paul did: with enthusiasm, wonder and a true passion for science education. 

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