Alumni Profile • Matt Vanderhill ’69
Physics in the future tense

Though he liked all the sciences, Matt Vanderhill ’69 got hooked on physics in Roger Griffioen’s course for first-year students at Calvin. “For me, it provided insights about both everyday and unseen phenomena that were so much more rich and deep than anything else,” Vanderhill said.

Since earning his PhD in experimental astrophysics at the University of Wisconsin, Vanderhill has put his physics insights to work for the nation’s defense. In 1978, Vanderhill became a project scientist at Lincoln Laboratory, a federally funded research and development center administered by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. From the beginning he’s worked on infrared and radar systems for the Navy that detect and defend against airborne and missile targets. The size of the various projects’ hardware is one illustration of their scope.

Matt Vanderhill“I did some work on over-the-horizon radars, which operate at extremely long wavelengths and bounce radar waves off the ionosphere in order to see things on the ocean thousands of miles away,” Vanderhill said. “Their antennas are kilometers long. Then I’ve worked on radars for airplanes, and that technology is the size of your hand.”

A constant interest for him across all the projects, Vanderhill said, “is trying to understand the effect of the environment on a given technology. Depending on the frequency band, different phenomena become important: rain, ocean waves, sun spots.”

If all of this sounds like his tasks have been immediate—find that ship or missile, now—Vanderhill says that, actually, he’s lived most of his career in the future.

“We do a lot of ‘what-ifs’: We’ll try to project what kind of vehicle or object might exist in the future—how fast could it go, how small might its radar signature be—and then ask, what would be the characteristics of the radar or infrared system that could find it?”

To design such new systems, Vanderhill added, he and his colleagues typically deal with what he likes to call “a 19-dimensional parameter space”: all the different factors, some of them connected, that affect the design.

The system designs he works on are not, Vanderhill said, “products to be sold to the Navy or contractors. As a federally funded research and development center, we’re tasked with providing objective analysis of current and future systems, forecasting possible developments in technology and developing prototypes to transition to industry.”

Vanderhill has briefed admirals, the intelligence community and Department of Defense officials on the results of that analysis. “We might have to say, ‘Our adversaries are developing this technology, and we need a response to deal with it.’ That can be hard for them to hear, because it means they need to change their program plans.

“Though sometimes I’m concerned with how long it takes for solutions we’ve developed to be deployed,” Vanderhill continued, “the opportunity to influence decision makers has been gratifying. I’ve always been interested in work that’s useful. That’s what prompted me to focus on physics all those years ago.”

Last January, Vanderhill helped current Calvin physics and astronomy students see the usefulness of their study. He helped an interim class gain entrance to Lincoln Laboratory’s near-earth asteroid research site on the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. “I wanted them to see the professional, research-grade equivalent of what they’re doing,” he said, “because with their equipment, they’re already having amazing success.”