The 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics has a Wallowa County connection.
The award went to a team of scientists that first observed the universe’s gravitational waves. The waves, which were predicted by Albert Einstein a hundred years ago, came from a collision between two black holes. It took 1.3 billion years for the waves to arrive at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, or LIGO, detectors in the USA. The gravitational wave made a distortion in space/time that was less than one proton in diameter and less than one second in time -- but LIGO detected it for the first time in human history.
Matthew Evans has been working on the LIGO project since he entered graduate school at Caltech in 1997, and over the last two decades has worked on most parts of the LIGO instrument.
He is the son of Anita Van Grunsven of Wallowa. She and her husband moved to the county in 2016, having relocated to a ranch on Upper Diamond Lane from Idaho.
“I helped to design the current version of the LIGO detector, which made the first detection of gravitational waves, and spent a lot of time at the observatories helping to make that design work,” said Evans, who is an assistant professor of physics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Let me be very clear though: this is a big project and many people worked on the design and construction of the detectors, so I am certainly not trying to take credit for doing it all myself.”
The three pioneers who brought the project to completion –– Rainer Weiss, Kip S. Thorne and Barry C. Barish –– have been cohorts of Evans’ throughout the years.
Evans and his brother, Dan, were raised in the Hillsboro, Ore., area. Matt Evans is a 1992 graduate of Newberg High School. Dan is one of the top programmers in IKEA’s IT department, based in Norway.
Van Grunsven said both children had a typical upbringing on the family’s Chehalem Mountain acreage.
Evans had an early interest in science, sparked by an orange ’67 Camaro with a big white stripe.
“It required a lot of mechanical work to keep it going, so at a fairly early age, he learned how to take a car apart, fix it and put it back together again,” Van Grunsven said.
“I like to think of that car as red, despite what the pictures show,” Evans quipped. “Working on cars is just one part of the bigger picture of understanding how things work. Of course, that is also what physics is all about; understanding how things work.”
After high school, Evans received his B.S. from Harvey Mudd College in 1996 and his Ph.D. from California Institute of Technology in 2002. He did his post-doctoral work at Caltech, and In 2006, he began at Massachusetts Institute of Technology as a research scientist for the LIGO project, taking his current post in 2013.
The project is more closely aligned with scientific research for the sake of knowing rather than providing a major technological development.
“Our aim is not really a better mouse trap or technology development though some of that happens,” Evans said. “We have helped to drive laser and vibration isolation technologies, for example. But our main public impact, and our primary goal, is about the basic human desire to know; our innate curiosity about the world we live in.
“People didn’t flock to see the eclipse because it would make their lives better, but because it is an awesome thing which helps you know your place in the universe.”
Advice for mothers raising future scientists?
“If they were crying, I snuggled them and did what I could,” Van Grunsven said. “If they bounced and were gone, I didn’t worry too much. I had as few rules as possible but those were strictly enforced, and I always encouraged them to think.”