The day instantly turned to night as the moon passed between the earth and the sun March 7, 1970, in Nova Scotia. David Chappell, associate professor of physics at the University of La Verne, was then 3 years old. He has a vague memory of the event because he was peering through a filtered telescope, held steady by his father. July 10, 1972, in Virginia, the moon again crossed the sun for 156 seconds. The family, Virginia natives, were there with their now 5-year-old son, witnessing this solar eclipse. For the Chappell family, watching eclipses was a family affair. David’s dad was an amateur astronomer, and young David was encouraged to gaze at the heavens. “I’ve been looking through telescopes since I was about 3 years old. We used to look at comets, planets, stars. That was pretty cool. I thank my dad for that,” David says. “I have a vague memory of the moon landing. I grew up hearing those stories.”
Forward to Aug. 22, 2017. David witnessed another historic eclipse, this time sharing the moment with his 4-year-old son Kai at his father’s home in Idaho Falls, Idaho. Three generations of Chappells witnessed this event. “We made a little fort for Kai out of cardboard boxes. In the roof we made a solar filter. When it was over, he started crying. We told him the next one isn’t for seven years, and he asked, ‘Is that one going to last longer?’” Kai, at an early age, seems to take to the family academic interest and soon will be able to share it with a little brother. The Chappells are expecting a son in early 2018.
David strives to share his passion of looking to the heavens. On the occasion of noteworthy astrological events, he has set up telescopes and other scientific viewing instruments in the campus mall to share the experience with the University community.
His teaching extends to the outside community. Both David and Jeffery Burkhart, professor emeritus of biology and Fletcher Jones chair, have taught adult education classes for the Desert Institute, a non-profit adult education program partnered with the Joshua Tree National Park Association. While Jeff led a reptile themed class for the institute, David’s class was titled, “Desert Night Sky,” and welcomed astronomers of all levels—amateur to expert. Groups of adult learners heard his daytime lectures and then at night viewed the rings of Saturn, the Great Orion Nebula and dozens of galaxies through telescopes and binoculars. It was at the Desert Institute that David met his wife Karina, who worked in conservancy for the Joshua Tree National Park Association from 2006 to 2012. At the University of La Verne, David teaches physics and astronomy. He has been instrumental in building an impressive collection of scientific instruments—telescopes, high performance computers, plus a complex dynamical systems laboratory—with the Fletcher Jones Endowment.
The professor is admired by his students and peers and was honored as the recipient of the University of La Verne’s 2017 Excellence in Teaching Award. “It’s a very humbling experience because there are lots of amazing teachers at this University, so to be recognized is nice. It meant a lot to me,” David says. He gained the award in the spring and was the lead speaker at the fall 2017 Convocation, with a speech centered on the theme of “The Art of Unlearning.” “You normally think of learning as an accumulation of knowledge and adding to what you already know. At times you’re faced with new information that conflicts with things you already know to be true, and you’re faced with the decision to question these things. That’s a very powerful experience: questioning your beliefs. Instead of just adding to what you know, I encourage students to challenge what they know and to grow.”
David has taught at La Verne since 2000. His time at the University has allowed him to grow in interdisciplinary work. “When I applied to La Verne, they were looking for a physicist who was also interested in interdisciplinary research and teaching. I certainly have a lot of disciplinary interest, and I’ve collaborated with many people outside of my discipline—in math, art, science and photography. I’ve broadened my research interests, and that has influenced my teaching.” Over the years, David has taught a class on the intersection of art and physics with Ruth Trotter, professor of art, as well as other classes with archaeology and religion professors. His academic interests reflect both his father’s and mother’s passions. “My dad was an amateur astronomer, and my mom was an art teacher. I got the astronomy, physics and science stuff from my dad, and my artistic interests from my mom.”
In one of David’s current classes, his students are working on electronics projects in conjunction with the “Maker’s Space” in the Wilson Library. The area includes a 3-D printer, computers with sophisticated software, and engineering-oriented equipment. “They have to think in ways they’re not used to with computer planning and working with electronics and physics. It’s pushing them with new ways to be creative,” he says. For the project, one group is building a spinning globe with push pins in places where they have visited. When the pins are touched, they show photos from their trips. Another group is making a microphone that plays an LED light show that responds to music. Others are making musical instruments such as guitars and a piano. “In a traditional classroom, the students look to a teacher as the expert in the field who holds ‘the answers,’ but in this class, the focus is more on creativity and innovation. The students and the professor learn together. It puts the responsibility of lifelong learning on them,” he says.
Outside of the classroom, David has started a club for those interested in learning Python, a high-level programming language. “Python is growing very quickly in scientific computation areas, like astronomy and physics.” The new club, consisting of physics, computer science, and math majors as well faculty, alumni and members of the community, has met on Friday afternoons since early November. Club members have different levels of knowledge of Python and come to meetings to collectively help solve problems. “The club is just a meeting ground for people to share their knowledge in an informal setting. Part of it is people coming and asking each other questions,” David says. In spring, he is teaching an astrophysics course in which students will do research programs with Matlab. “I’ve also been playing around with a new research program that I might write in Python.”
In late November, David led a faculty research presentation for the La Verne Academy, titled,“Droplet Dynamics on a Vertically Vibrated Fluid Bath.” He has been working on the project for more than five years. “I’m interested in a wide range of research topics. Right now, I’m finishing a paper on the dynamics of these little bouncing droplets.” The experiment, set up in the front of his Founders Hall office, is a large oscillating speaker cone that moves a dish of silicone fluid up and down. As the dish moves, the fluid supports bouncing droplets, preventing them from coalescing with the surface. “It turns out that there’s interesting dynamics in that system, which we can then use as an analogy to the quantum mechanical behavior of subatomic particles such as electrons and protons. Over the years, I’ve had a number of students working on the project with me,” he says. “My students and I have presented this work at national conferences on fluid dynamics in Boston and Atlanta.”
The professor’s research with the Fletcher Jones Endowment has allowed him to work with other La Verne professors in interdisciplinary collaboration, including Dr. Yousef Daneshbod, associate professor of mathematics. “In working with David as a colleague, I have come to realize that not only is he a decent theoretician but also a very keen experimentalist. This is not a common trait among today’s physicists, given that only a handful of 19th century scientists such as Maxwell, Kelvin, Rayleigh and Helmholtz had this knack,” Yousef says, adding, “As a teacher, David has the amazing gift of being able to simplify very complex concepts and clarifying it for our students. Judging by the interactions that he has with the students outside the classroom, it is very obvious that he is one of the most well-liked professors on campus.” In the classroom, David enjoys working with diverse groups of students. “I do really like the fact that students come from all different backgrounds and bring their experiences to the classroom. I feel like I learn from them as much as they learn from me. They have a real desire and passion for learning.”
Physics for David Chappell, is a subject he lives. It is a science that deals with matter and energy and their interactions. It is as fascinating as the wonders of the night sky—as seen by a 3-year-old who grasps for understanding and makes it his academic career to do so.
This story was originally published by La Verne Magazine.