The Go-To Guy
Myron MacInnis squats on the floor of the LIGO laboratory in Building NW17 and peers under one of the thick blue beams that surround and support chambers resembling giant tin canisters. Other members of the LIGO lab surround him, pondering the flashlight-illuminated underbelly of this blue beast.
Bright red and yellow scaffolding crisscrosses the ceiling of the lab, called the High Bay. Clumps of enormous chains dangle from it to hold a silver beam that makes up another part of the support structure. As MacInnis and crew puzzle over how tightly they should screw in the blue beams’ support plates, he suggests in his born-and-bred Massachusetts accent that they “torque the shit out of it.”
MacInnis is the engineering technician at the MIT lab that works with scientists worldwide to operate LIGO, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory. LIGO’s instruments scan the skies in search of gravitational waves—large disturbances in space-time that occur when massive bodies in the deep cosmos collide or spiral around each other at unimaginable speed. Einstein’s theory of general relativity predicted the waves in 1916, but they have never been directly detected. LIGO, which began running in 2001, is in the midst of an upgrade to increase its sensitivity by a factor of more than 10.
A joint project of MIT and Caltech, LIGO runs observatories in Hanford, Washington, and Livingston, Louisiana. Optics teams, quantum teams, and seismic teams at the four sites work together on what functions as one massive detector. But the upgrades in progress don’t come with instructions. Researchers make each adjustment after hours of discussion, debate, and experimentation. When they finally work out the right technology, they take it to MacInnis.
He’s “the main guy” in the High Bay, says Ken Mason, LIGO’s seismic isolation group leader, who has worked with MacInnis for close to 14 years. A lot of researchers from different groups within LIGO come up with experiments and develop and modify designs, he says; MacInnis often serves as the glue that holds everything together. He’s “the guy who knows where everything is, knows where the tools are,” says Mason. “He’s the guy you gotta go to to get the thing built.”
Back in the High Bay, MacInnis is determining how much torque “the shit out of it” really is. “Go until your face turns red, and then that’ll be enough,” he says with a chuckle.
MacInnis joined the MIT community in 1986 as a technician at Lincoln Laboratory. After high school, he’d started doing construction jobs around Boston, including union work on the subway line from Porter Square to Harvard. “You know that escalator you go down?” he says, referring to one at Porter Square, an impressive 143 feet long. “I worked on the tunneling and construction that made the whole thing possible.”
Meanwhile, he took classes in electronics and computer technologies at Northern Essex Community College. He put himself through school by juggling various jobs—more construction, ironwork, and part-time help at his father’s wrought-iron business—and finished an associate’s degree in 1985.
That’s when he came across the opportunity at Lincoln Laboratory, working in optics on laser systems. “I was at the right place at the right time,” he says. “I went in at the bottom of the ranks”—making about $4 per hour less than he did in construction—“but I had put in the effort for the associate’s degree.”
At Lincoln Lab, MacInnis could use his electronics background and his hands-on mechanical knowledge from years in construction. He knew the basics of the equipment he was working with, but from there he needed to figure things out on his own. He applied coatings on optics; he ran wires. He set up shutter systems. He helped other labs polish crystals for their experiments.
“There was a lot of apprehension hiring a guy from a construction field,” he says. But he handily tackled any task thrown at him. And when he needed to, he would take a class on his own time. That gave him a solid understanding of the principles he was working with and helped in the lab community as well. “When I went into the different labs they didn’t have to sit around teaching me things,” he says.
Self-sufficiency is a way of life for MacInnis. “I do my own stuff at home … I barely call a plumber or electrician,” he says. “That’s the way my father did it.” And it’s something that he has tried to impart to his three children. “You can’t know enough,” he tells them.
At Lincoln Lab, MacInnis was promoted three times, rising from Technician C to Senior Technician, but he was told to look for a lateral transfer during mass layoffs following funding cuts in 1992. He soon found his way to MIT’s Center for Space Research and started working on ACIS, a spectrometer designed for the Chandra X-Ray Observatory. Within a year and half, he’d earned the title of Project Technician. But since Chandra was ultimately a flight program, “you run yourself out of a job,” says MacInnis. “They get launched and there’s nothing to work on.” So he moved over to LIGO in 2000.
“None of what I do now has anything to do with my degree … I totally switched paths,” he says. But he enjoys his job: “It’s intriguing for me to work on something I hadn’t worked on before.”
As an engineering technician, MacInnis is indispensable. “Myron is good. I trust Myron,” says Mason. “He’s motivated, you know? If you ask him to do something, it’ll get done.”
And there is always something for him to do. Whether it’s assembling pieces of the LIGO detector, preparing for the delivery of parts, or cleaning up after leaky pipes, MacInnis is the man.
Mike Zucker, a senior LIGO physicist from Caltech, recalls a case when MacInnis’s lab experience and intuition proved crucial in saving a shipment to the Livingston site. Time after time, shipments had been arriving damaged. So when they assembled a one-ton optical table whose 300 to 400 components had to remain perfectly aligned during the nearly 1,300-mile trip, MacInnis swung into action.
“Myron took it upon himself to protect it,” Zucker says. “He built this steel cage from this table top … steel bars and everything like that … like a roll cage on a dune buggy.” He attached the cage firmly around the optical table, sent the shipment, and was in Louisiana in time to receive it.
When the shipment showed up at the site, “the entire crate was demolished,” Zucker says. The optics table was open to the elements—and “sitting on top of it was the plywood that had been the top of the crate.” The rest of it was in splinters.
As for the table? “It survived!” says Zucker. MacInnis’s roll cage did its job perfectly.
Beyond skill and intuition, MacInnis also relies on his sense of humor—and the occasional application of colorful language—as he works through challenges. (“Do you swear?” he asks a newcomer to the High Bay. “Do you mind hearing swearing?”) He ponders torque, plans deliveries, and locates scattered parts for researchers throughout the lab with a smile and a joke always at the ready. “The only bad thing is we’re not being paid by the hour,” he says, laughing. “Then we’d all be smiling. Overtime, overtime, overtime!”
In 2004, MacInnis earned the School of Science Staff Excellence Award. “I wonder how often he can win it … if he can win it again, we’ll nominate him again,” says Richard Mittleman ‘79, a research scientist at LIGO. “When we need heavy lifting done, we ask Myron to do it … when we can’t figure it out, we ask him to figure it out. He makes the lab run.”