“Davis has a really good combination of being serious and harsh on us when necessary,” recent Woodinville High School graduate Ionatan Kuperwajs said about his soccer coach Nathan Davis. “But he also keeps things fun and light.”
Kuperwajs, along with several teammates, has also taken the physics courses that Davis teaches at Woodinville. And just like on the soccer field, the students are challenged and entertained in that liveliest of classrooms.
“I think my course is one where you will find typical 4.0 students staring at an A- or B+, and they don’t like it,” Davis said. “So I tell them, ‘Now is your chance to face a challenge, and to learn how to rise to the occasion. How to utilize all your resources now to make yourself successful.’
“But physics is such a love, it’s like soccer. You can never be perfect at it. It’s one of those things where you will suffer through bad games and bad problems, but you’re just going to have to overcome them and see it as a fun challenge to try and get over.”
When Davis himself was in high school, he found inspiration from a couple of physics teachers who spent time teaching him about his newfound interest. Soon after Davis arrived at Whitman College in 2000, he found that physics for him had boiled over into a passion. He loved the challenge when mathematics combined with the conceptual side of physics.
“Trying to figure them both out was very entertaining,” Davis said. “And the reward of doing it correctly was really, really fun, and I got a kick out of it. My freshman roommate’s name was John Goldmark and we’re good friends to this day. We were in the same freshmen physics classes, so we would spend our evenings doing problems together. Just suffering through a problem for 25 minutes and coming out on top was a lot of fun and made it really worthwhile and gave you a sense of accomplishment.”
By his junior year in college, Davis switched his major from physics to astrophysics. This allowed him to explore aspects like the space-time continuum, universe growth and expansion and the Big Bang.
Davis began teaching science in 2006 and came to Woodinville in the fall of 2012. Now, as he stands before a classroom full of kids, he can quickly spot the ones that are there because they love physics, and not to simply fulfill college admission requirements.
“You’ll know right off the bat within a day or two, because they will be the ones asking the questions that have been rattling in their brains for years,” Davis said. “Questions they’ve thought about, have asked mom and dad, have Googled, and still haven’t figured out and they don’t quite understand. I can quickly pick the three to four students out and know that I can have a little extra fun with them. I like to throw problems at them every once in awhile that really upset them. It won’t sit well with them, and that’s what is fun about physics. It shouldn’t sit well. A lot of the kids will say it was a very hard class, whether it is regular physics or my AP physics. I tell them that I honestly didn’t understand it in my high school years. Not at all.”
But now as a teacher, Davis often gets peppered with fascinating questions.
“Right now the hot topic seems to be about black holes,” Davis said. “The existence of them, what happens when you go through them. But they also want to know, what else is there? What is beyond our universe? Is there another universe? How did we get to where we are? And so those are the fun questions where I can float questions back to them, and ask them more questions to get them thinking on their own. Because realistically, I can’t answer them. No one can. We’ve got ideas, and I can tell them what some of the ideas are. But for the most part, you’ve got to think on your own on that one.”
Another topic that currently titillates the science community is whether dark energy exists. Dark energy is a hypothetical form of energy that permeates all of space and tends to accelerate the expansion of the universe.
“I am a believer in it because the mathematics support it,” Davis said. “And coming from the math-heavy side of physics in college, I find that the math makes sense. If the math supports it, then the idea must be there. It’s just that we don’t have the technology to locate it or fully comprehend it. But for me, I believe in it, and think it is a necessary part of the growth of the universe and how we got to where we are now.”
Given his belief in dark energy, that leads to the question of the Big Bang.
“I like to tell the students that if the Big Bang didn’t occur, what created that?” Davis said. “That large amount of matter in that small space had to come from somewhere...We might all be the product of a black hole, who knows? Those are some of the fun things I like to ask the students. You never know what is happening with our universe.
“You never know what happens when you pass away,” he added. “For all you know, you could pass away, and that could just be essentially your energy passing into a black hole and you end up in another universe starting all over again. These are things where you can let your mind wander. You can spend hours in the evening just thinking about it or reading about these crazy ideas that people have out there. They may seem farfetched, you never know, but there might be some math to support it here and there. But until we develop the technology to understand this more, we’re free to think what we want to. And I think that’s the fun part about higher level physics.”
In another two months, the fall quarter starts at Woodinville and soccer season will ensue. Davis will joyfully spend his afternoons and evenings coaching the women’s soccer team as they try to better last year’s winning record. But during the days, he will stand before his students and talk string theory and Albert Einstein and hand out problems that seem unsolvable.
“That’s what interests a lot of the students who are keyed in on physics and science,” he said. “That idea is that there aren’t really answers, is what drives them. They don’t know that, because they’re used to being right on all their tests and quizzes. But the fact there isn’t a hard, set answer drives them to find out more, to learn more. When you see that in a student, you can immediately say that’s a kid who loves learning. That’s a student who is going to go to college, is going to enjoy their four years, and will go on to get their Ph.D., because they just want to learn more.
“It’s about teaching them patience, teaching them a sense of humility, teaching them how to overcome adversity — and how to push through.”