My friend Paul

by Stephanie Chasteen on September 27, 2017

I have both a sad and joyous post today — one that I have been meaning to write for some time, but understandably struggled to do so.  On August 18th, I lost one of my dearest friends and most loving mentor, Paul Doherty.

I have thought of Paul every day since finding out  he was in hospice (just a week before he died).   I am not alone in my grief; Paul was an extraordinary person and many of us are stunned and picking up the pieces after the surprise of losing the most robust and exuberant person we know.  You will be hard pressed to find a teacher in the Bay Area who wasn’t personally mentored by Paul, and he has influenced people around the globe (teaching science to buddhist monks was just one of his extra-curriculars). I am so very lucky to have had Paul in my life, but it is still not OK that he is gone.  Note:  I will be returning to the Bay Area for his memorial on Oct 6th and would love to get together with those there who knew him that day — drop me a note.

After my PhD at UC Santa Cruz, I was sifting around for what to do next, and saw a job ad for a postdoctoral position at the Exploratorium Museum of Science, Art and Human Perception in San Francisco.  I knew I needed that job.  And when I met Paul, I knew I needed to work with this person.  I think he felt the same way, and they enthusiastically hired me into a life changing experience.

At the Exploratorium I worked with Paul (and many other wonderful people) in the Teacher Institute, offering in-service teacher workshops.  I wasn’t very good at it.  🙂  But while teacher prep wasn’t my forte, what I did gain was a deep and lasting appreciation of the value of learning science through doing, the excitement of understanding physics phenomena over principles, the power of inspiration and beauty in learning, and how to communicate to the public.  I took that newfound calling on to a career in science education reform and research.  But I still miss the creativity and enthusiasm of my days at the Teacher Institute. To the left is a photo of me “coring” a cake as part of a public webcast on polar science.  We had so much fun in those webinars.

Paul cared deeply about mentoring, and I can still remember noticing how carefully he chose his feedback to help me hone my skills — while still supporting me and helping me feel good about myself. He taught me so much about physics — real physics you never learn in all those graduate studies. He helped me develop lessons for teachers and write for the public, and hone my presentation skills, all in a supportive and intelligent way.   In fact, he wrote about the importance of mentoring for the AAPT’s 75th anniversary.  Paul is an amazing teacher — both of teachers, and of those like me, who want to work in education.  Paul really loves people.  He loved me, and it is amazing to have a mentor who loves you.  He became a platform from which I could try new things, and know someone would be there to catch me when I fell.

Paul literally caught me when I fell, too.  Paul  taught me how to climb, taking me out with his “old guy climber” friends, and patiently showing me what to notice in my body and the feeling on the rock, and helping me apply my physics knowledge to this new sport.  Paul was a world-class climber, taking frequent adventures around the world, and I am lucky to have been on many wonderful climbs with him.  Climbing was a sport that I enjoyed for many years.  To the right is me, with Paul’s legs (which anybody who knows him should recognize.  Why are his legs so recognizable?)

And lastly, when I decided to get married, I knew there was no better person to officiate my wedding than Paul.  In Colorado, anybody can officiate, and Paul had been my friend, mentor, teacher, and lifted me up in so many ways.  He graciously accepted (bless him), and found some old west clothes at my request (bless him) to fit with our theme, and read an excerpt from the Feynman Lectures — the universe in a glass of wine, which I quote for you here.

A poet once said, ‘The whole universe is in a glass of wine.’ We will probably never know in what sense he meant it, for poets do not write to be understood. But it is true that if we look at a glass of wine closely enough we see the entire universe. There are the things of physics: the twisting liquid which evaporates depending on the wind and weather, the reflection in the glass; and our imagination adds atoms. The glass is a distillation of the earth’s rocks, and in its composition we see the secrets of the universe’s age, and the evolution of stars. What strange array of chemicals are in the wine? How did they come to be? There are the ferments, the enzymes, the substrates, and the products. There in wine is found the great generalization; all life is fermentation. Nobody can discover the chemistry of wine without discovering, as did Louis Pasteur, the cause of much disease. How vivid is the claret, pressing its existence into the consciousness that watches it! If our small minds, for some convenience, divide this glass of wine, this universe, into parts — physics, biology, geology, astronomy, psychology, and so on — remember that nature does not know it! So let us put it all back together, not forgetting ultimately what it is for. Let it give us one more final pleasure; drink it and forget it all!

Thank you for everything, Paul — the world is better for having had you in it.

If you want to read more about Paul, his extensive website has his many amazing inquiry lessons for teachers, articles he’s written, and notes about his life.  Here is a nice obituary from SF Gate and the Exploratorium


Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: