From Legos to LIGO: alumnus Ryan Everett’s journey into physics history

TU alumnus a small part of a big discovery

Ryan Everett (left) and James Overduin at an American Physical Society meeting while Everett was an undergraduate
Ryan Everett (left) and James Overduin at an American Physical Society meeting while Everett was an undergraduate

Taking things apart to learn their secrets and putting Legos together initially led Towson University's Ryan Everett ’13 to engineering. But Fallston High School teacher Glenn Taylor inspired Everett to pursue physics instead.

“I remember looking forward to the days I had his class because his passion for the subject was contagious, and it certainly rubbed off on me,” noted Everett. “Memories fade as time progresses, but how that memory made you feel tends to persist. While I can’t recall everything about a day-to-day class, I do remember that I was happy and excited there.” 

He does remember Taylor never used a calculator in class.

“He did everything by estimating the answer in his head, including trigonometric functions,” marveled Everett. “I found that very impressive and later realized during my own tutoring [of others] at Towson that learning physics is much more than learning formulas and getting the exact right answer. It is a means by which you learn how to think, really think.” 

Exploring physics at Towson U

At Towson, Everett found a mentor in James Overduin, Ph.D., another passionate physics teacher. The two eventually paired up on research projects, producing two refereed papers and one refereed conference proceeding.

Whatever discoveries lie in the future, a small piece of this one started in Smith Hall. ”

 

“Honestly, I thought that it was standard and possibly even expected for any student planning to go to grad school to have publications regardless of their field,” Everett said. “It wasn’t until I got to grad school that I realized that wasn’t necessarily the case, since most of my peers didn’t have any publications.”

Everett presented their research at two annual meetings of the American Physical Society, as well as a conference for experts in gravitation, where he was runner-up for the "Blue Apple" award for top student presentation. All of his competitors were graduate students; nobody realized he was an undergraduate.

Summer school homework

Overduin encouraged Everett to attend a gravitational wave summer school at the University of Texas-Brownsville, a two-week crash course in gravitational waves taught by members of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) collaboration.

Overduin remembers the breakthrough Everett made during the flight home that helped the duo through a roadblock in their research.

“I had given him some exercises to do involving Einstein's theory of general relativity,” said Overduin. “Our research project together involved testing extensions of Einstein's theory to higher dimensions, but we were stuck because we needed a computer code that could solve Einstein's equations.

“While Ryan was in Texas, I read an article about a new approach to teaching Einstein's theory I thought could help us, and I wrote him about it. Ryan not only read that article, he noticed at the end that the author had created the computer codes we needed. Ryan used those codes to solve the exercises I had given him. He then extended those codes so we could also use them to solve the same kinds of problems in higher dimensions. This helped us obtain the results that led to our own publications.”

That summer study was pivotal to Everett’s career path. He graduated from Towson and attended graduate school at Penn State, where he studied with Chad Hanna, Ph.D., a member of the LIGO collaboration.

“When I came back I was very excited about gravitational waves and went to Penn State with the intention to study them and join the LIGO collaboration to help with their eventual detection,” Everett said. “Dr. Hanna interviewed me, and then I joined his research group with two other students.”

After leaving graduate school upon the birth of his daughter, Everett re-teamed with Hanna on a part-time basis as a computer scientist to improve the code LIGO was using to detect gravitational waves. Physics' giant leap forward finally happened on February 11, 2016 when the LIGO team announced its historic discovery in a paper Everett co-authored.

This discovery is widely expected to win the Nobel Prize in physics in the near future.

What it means for the future

Einstein’s theory of relativity is based on the idea that gravity is simply warps and curves in the fabric of space-time. He later realized space-time was flexible enough to ripple as well. Those ripples – theoretical until just this year – were what Einstein called gravitational waves. But the effects of those waves are so tiny, they are exceedingly difficult to detect.

“Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, the E=mc2 equation many people are familiar with, made many predictions, and all have been verified experimentally except gravitational waves,” Everett explained. “It is important to verify all predictions of a theory to ensure its validity. So Einstein is definitely right. This discovery will give us a way to look into the universe without light so we can see things that do not emit light. Who knows what we’ll find?

“It has to be stated how amazing this is and what humans are capable of doing. Gravitational waves stretch and squeeze space-time. The amazing thing is how small that stretching and squeezing is – a strain of 10-21. Strain is a measure of the change in length relative to its original length. So if you take a Slinky and stretch it out as far as it can go, it will have a large strain. To put [this discovery] into perspective, a strain that small is equivalent to trying to detect a change in length of the entire Milky Way galaxy equivalent to the width of your thumb. I think it is a testament to what humans are capable of doing.”

As Everett notes, making predictions about how this will change technology in the future is difficult. Not many would have thought that Einstein’s discovery of general relativity in 1915 would later lead to the development of GPS navigation. The application of this discovery to the advancement of physics is more certain.

“What we have detected with LIGO will allow us to learn a lot more about black holes, neutron stars, and very violent and massive systems in our universe,” concluded Everett.

Whatever discoveries lie in the future, a small piece of this one started in Smith Hall.