Martin “Marty” McCabe ’71, ’73M.S., ’79PhD, is an expert on black holes.
No, not those black holes that captured Einstein’s imagination—though the civil engineer did play a part in helping to prove an aspect of the Nobel winner’s cosmic theory. McCabe’s passion involves another type of dark recess: boreholes, shafts and tunnels in rock.
The 69-year-old senior geotechnical engineer for AECOM in Seattle, Wash., has spent his career making sure support systems—that is building foundations, dams, pilings for docks and such—can withstand the enormous pressure exerted by the earth. He probes soil and analyzes its structure and then helps design and monitor construction projects.
“It seems to fall in the realm of enjoyable things to me,” McCabe says, simply.
Over the years, he has worked on high-rise and low-rise buildings, airport and highway expansions, ports and harbors, bridges and tunnels, and everything in between. And McCabe did his part to help prove Einstein’s theory about the existence of gravitational waves proposed in 1916 as part of the physicist’s famed Theory of Relativity. Einstein predicted that massive accelerating objects, such as black holes colliding, would disrupt space-time and result in waves rippling out from the source.
It’s complex stuff, but McCabe’s contribution is much more straightforward. AECOM won a bid on the project to build a 2.5-mile, L-shaped observatory in the desert near Richland, Wash., to detect waves from space, and in 1999, McCabe worked on the foundation. Known as the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Observation (LIGO) facility, in 2016 it finally detected the gravitational waves that Einstein had predicted a century earlier.
“The whole concept of black holes is hard to get my mind around,” McCabe allows. Still, he’s happy he played a role.
Bore holes, however, hold much more appeal. “I’m an outdoor person,” he says. Geotechnical engineering “has a lot of challenges that are very interesting to address.”
McCabe, who went to high school in Chester, Pa., says he followed his brother, mechanical engineer Michael E. McCabe ’69, to Drexel University. There, he had co-ops with the Philadelphia Department of Streets (bridge division), the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Philadelphia’s Redevelopment Authority.
“They turned me onto geotechnical civil engineering,” he says.
McCabe also became president of the Interfraternity Council while a member of Tau Kappa Epsilon. During his graduate studies, he was an avid community activist, joining groups such as Education Action Coalition and Citizens Committee on Public Education in Philadelphia. Through the latter, he worked on desegregation issues.
“I chose to be educated for a long period of time,” he says. “I thought education was an important thing. I was discouraged by what I saw happening to younger people in the city.”
His doctoral work was done with Professor Emeritus Robert M. Koerner and involved nondestructive testing methods of soil and rock structures, such as the use of equipment that can detect acoustic emissions. Koerner “was listening to the sounds created by the earth as it was getting ready to fail,” he says.
In 1974 to 1975, McCabe was a ward leader for the Philadelphia Party, which sought to elect (unsuccessfully, it turned out) the first minority candidate for mayor.
In 1981, he moved to the West Coast to work with Rockwell Hanford Operations in Richland, Wash. His assignment was to assess the feasibility of burying nuclear waste at the site. What was the result? “Frankly, they decided not to build a repository there because it was not safe enough,” McCabe says. Later, though, he would return to the area to help with the LIGO project.
In 1985, McCabe moved to AECOM. Besides his many projects that included airports in Seattle-Tacoma, Spokane, Portland and Oakland, he also continued his community service, volunteering with the Seattle Crisis Clinic’s 24-hour crisis line and the United Way. He also offers his services pro-bono to nonprofits.
McCabe, who often works 60-hour weeks even as he approaches his seventh decade, has only vague plans for retirement.
“I’ll be a full-time employee at least until 70, maybe longer,” he says. “We’ll see.”
By Lini S. Kadaba