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Paul Doherty, the Exploratorium's Beloved Senior Scientist, Dies at 69

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Paul Doherty in Joshua Tree National Park, April 2009  (Hal Murray)

Paul Doherty’s wife, Ellen Henson, loved watching his hands when he taught. An animated, enthusiastic speaker, Doherty used movement to lend his words extra meaning. His teaching paired his brilliant, scientifically astute mind with an intuitive understanding of his audience.

The celebrated teacher and senior scientist at San Francisco’s Exploratorium museum died last month, after a return of cancer that had been in remission.

For the past three decades, Doherty has been a key figure at the Exploratorium’s Teacher Institute, where the museum is creating a fund in his name.  The institute trains and mentors middle and high school math and science teachers. He has authored several books; the most recent, “And Then You’re Dead: What Really Happens If You Get Swallowed by a Whale, Are Shot from a Cannon, or Go Barreling over Niagara,” written with Cody Cassidy, was published in April.

Doherty was chosen as “Best Science Demonstrator” at the World Congress of Museums in Helsinki in 1996. The National Science Teachers Association selected him in 2003 for the Faraday Science Communicator Award. And seven years ago, he traveled to India as part of a team from the Exploratorium, invited by the Dalai Llama to teach science to Buddhist Monks.

Colleagues say Doherty’s most lasting legacy will be his infectious warmth and enthusiasm for teaching science, and inspiring science teachers to bring their passion and curiosity to the classroom.


“One of the most important lessons he taught,” says Bree Barnett Dreyfuss, a high school physics teacher at Amador Valley High School in Pleasanton, “was to love what you’re doing so that others love doing it with you.”

Paul Doherty atop Mount Clarence King, Kings Canyon National Park. July 2007 (Hal Murray)

Throughout his life, Doherty loved being outdoors and was an avid mountain climber. He 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.

“He could out-climb and out-bike most 20-year-olds,” says Eric Muller, senior science and math educator at the Exploratorium.

In interviews, friends and colleagues say they were continually astounded by the depth and breath of Doherty’s knowledge. Yet, they say, he was unfailingly humble, and not afraid to say, “I don’t know, but let’s find out.”

“Everything was an experiment — it was never about providing an answer,” says Barnett Dreyfuss. “I was so fearful of not knowing the content, of having kids question me and not being able to answer. To see that it was OK to not know everything, and that my job was to teach— not to be an encyclopedia— was a big thing.”

Barnett Dreyfuss went through the Teacher Institute more than a decade ago when she started teaching.

“I learned more from three weeks of Paul talking than I did in my entire undergraduate,” she says.

It was in college that Doherty found his love of teaching.

“I would go climb a mountain and see something beautiful,” he says in an Exploratorium video, “and then I would bring people to show them, to share with them the beauty that I found.”

After doing this for weeks on end, he says, he realized that he was both a scientist and a teacher.

Doherty received his doctorate in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1974. The following year he moved to Michigan and began teaching at Oakland University, covering a spectrum of subjects including physics, astronomy, geology and electronics.

That year, 1975, was also the year he married Ellen Henson, his wife of 42 years.

Ellen says she was drawn to Paul for his “aliveness” and his relationship to “both sides” of nature. Since her girlhood, she says, she has loved stones. “I could take a handful of stones to Paul and show him,” she says. “And he would both appreciate the beauty of them and he knew what they were made of.”

He was ever the experimentalist, she says. They used laugh that their marriage vows implied a clause of “Thou shalt not use the home microwave for anything other than normal cooking of food.”

It was not the marriage vows, however, that she remembers as the key moment when they made their commitment to each other. It was the selecting of the stone that would be set in her wedding ring. Shortly after Paul’s proposal, in the small shop of a science museum where they were visiting a geology exhibit, they were both taken by a beautiful cabochon of moss agate.

“I still wear it,” says Ellen. Depending on the light or the angle of view, she says, the stone reveals new rich detail. “That was how we saw our marriage. Multi-faceted. With many layers.”

The couple moved to the Bay Area in 1986, where Doherty joined the Exploratorium’s Teacher Institute.

Beyond his raft of interests in the real world, Doherty was also active in the online virtual world of Second Life. He helped created what Linda Shore, a friend and former staff at the Teacher Institute, believes was the first science museum in Second Life: The Splo (as in the Ex-splo-ratorium). In the virtual museum, visitors can explore color, optical illusions and motion, in much the same way they can at the Exploratorium. (Shore, currently executive director at the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, has inherited the job of looking after The Splo.)

Sir Isaac Newton invites people to celebrate Pi Day (March 14) at The Splo in Second Life.

On special occasions at the Exploratorium, such as their evening ‘After Dark’ parties, Doherty would bring his avatar: Patio Plasma, to life, displaying what friends recall as a “fabulous fashion sense.”

One of his lasting legacies, colleagues say, will be the culture of inclusion, understanding, acceptance and honesty that Doherty helped foster at the museum and in the educational community.

“Paul led by example. His way of being in the world, his complete and constant enthusiasm for life and learning was a constant mentorship,” says Lori Lambertson, also on staff at the Teacher Institute. “He moved so easily. Everybody turned to him. He had time for everybody.”

Through the Teacher Institute, his mentoring of museum staff (especially the high-school aged “Explainers” who engage the public at exhibits) the lectures he gave worldwide and his books, Paul Doherty’s influence reached hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people.

When he was diagnosed with cancer, Lambertson says, “he told a colleague, ‘I’ve had a good life. Everything now is icing.'”


Gifts to the Exploratorium’s Paul Doherty Fund will support the Teacher Institute, the professional development program for middle school and high school math and science teachers. 

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