Contact Me By Email

Contact Me By Email

Tuesday, March 19, 2024

Walter Massey, a Physicist With a Higher Calling - The New York Times

Walter Massey, a Physicist With a Higher Calling

"He broke barriers as the first Black physicist in nearly every role. But his identity made him reach for dreams beyond his career as a scientist.

Walter Massey, in a lightweight winter jacket, stands and smiles against a backdrop of blue sky.
Walter Massey outside his home in Chicago’s Hyde Park. “I’m a physicist,” he said. “And I don’t say, ‘I used to be.’”Akilah Townsend for The New York Times

By Katrina Miller

Katrina Miller, a science reporter, is the third Black woman to earn a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Chicago.

The day before Walter Massey turned 30, in 1968, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was fatally shot on a hotel balcony in Memphis. Dr. Massey, then a physicist at Argonne National Laboratory, watched the funeral on television, in tears, from his apartment in Chicago. Outside, the west side of the city was burning.

At the time, Dr. Massey was a rising star in the study of theoretical condensed matter, how liquids and solids behave. He wrangled equations to make sense of helium at low temperatures, adding to a bank of knowledge that has led to a better understanding of neutron stars, new strategies for detecting dark matter and the development of quantum technologies. In his most noteworthy calculation, he corrected a longstanding theory of superfluid helium established by Lev Landau, winner of a Nobel Prize in Physics.

But Dr. Massey was also a Black man born and raised in the Jim Crow South. And he often felt torn between his love of physics and a pull to contribute to the struggle for racial equity in America.

“I was doing well,” he said. “I’d go out to Argonne, I’d do my physics. I loved it.” But after Dr. King’s assassination, he added, “I began to think more about, you know, what was I doing? What was I contributing?”

That pondering would shape his career. Dr. Massey thrust himself into supporting Black students at a time when colleges around the country were adjusting to court-ordered integration. He bolstered education at underserved high schools to better prepare aspiring Black scientists for the rigor of college. And he helped found the National Society of Black Physicists, which has grown to support thousands of students and professionals in the field.

A handful of achievement awards, including one in the shape of a red glass teardrop, sit on a glass coffee table.
A subset of Dr. Massey’s many awards, including from Howard University and from the Rainbow PUSH Coalition.Akilah Townsend for The New York Times

Along the way, Dr. Massey established a formidable track record while simultaneously breaking barriers as the first Black physicist in nearly every role he assumed. He navigated Argonne — the first national laboratory in the United States, birthed from the development of the atomic bomb — through political doubts about nuclear power. At the National Science Foundation, he secured millions of dollars from Congress to fund what some had believed was a long-shot attempt at finding ripples in the fabric of space-time. Three researchers who announced that discovery in 2016 were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics the next year.

His footprint extends beyond science. Dr. Massey served on boards of companies like Motorola and McDonald’s, and even steered Bank of America through the aftermath of the catastrophic housing market crash in 2008.

Had Dr. Massey stayed active as a researcher, “he would have gone on to a really successful career in theoretical physics,” Gordon Baym, a physicist at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, said at an awards ceremony in 2020. In a draft of his memoir, Dr. Massey had remarked that he was no Gordon Baym, who he felt had a rare intuition for solving a physics problem.

Dr. Baym, in his speech, responded: “Well, in following Walter’s manifold successes, I quickly learned that I wasn’t a Walter Massey.”

Not Done Yet

Back from a run on a February afternoon, Dr. Massey, now 85, wore faded black jeans, a Tommy Hilfiger polo and a fleece vest — all he needed for an unseasonably warm day in Chicago. His office, like the rest of his home, was adorned with souvenirs, framed awards and cutouts of his features in magazines. In one photo, he is eating dinner with Queen Elizabeth II; in another, he is dancing with Oprah Winfrey. Perched above the couch in his living room is a steel balloon dog, a personal gift from the sculptor Jeff Koons.

A stack of blue booklets on the dining table reveals Dr. Massey’s latest endeavor: overseeing the board of the Giant Magellan Telescope project in Chile. When completed in the early 2030s, for nearly $3 billion, the observatory will be among the largest ever built, with four times the resolution of the James Webb Space Telescope.

Dr. Massey is not an astronomer, just insatiably curious. “I like to exercise the mind,” he said. “Once I get involved in something, I really get involved. It’s hard for me to be on the periphery.”

The excavation site for the foundations of the Giant Magellan Telescope’s enclosure in Chile’s Atacama Desert.Marcos Zegers for The New York Times
A cardboard model of the Giant Magellan Telescope.Caitlin O'Hara for The New York Times

And unlike pop-culture portrayals of theoretical physicists — solitarily scribbling away on blackboards, enveloped in clouds of chalk dust — Dr. Massey likes working with people. In turn, people regard him highly enough to speak his name in the right rooms. He wraps up one project, and it isn’t long before another drops in his lap. He also has a tendency to inherit organizations in need of some direction — most recently the Giant Magellan, which faces financial turmoil.

Dr. Massey’s involvement with the telescope project came toward the end of a presidency at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. During a board meeting for the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory in Massachusetts, Robert Zimmer, then the president of the University of Chicago, approached him about serving on the Giant Magellan’s board. One year later, Dr. Massey was elected chair.

But among all of his posts and accolades, one stands out, Dr. Massey said. In 1995, he assumed the presidency of his alma mater, Morehouse College, a historically Black men’s college in Atlanta and the site of Dr. King’s funeral. “Without Morehouse,” he said, “I just wouldn’t be who I am.”

Torn Between Worlds

Dr. Massey grew up in Hattiesburg, Miss., during the height of segregation. If you were Black, he recalled, you sat in the balcony at movies, rode buses in the back and slipped through the side entrances of stores — if you could shop there at all. And when a white person was on the sidewalk, you moved out of the way.

Desperate to leave, he was elated when, at 16, he won a scholarship to attend Morehouse. But he quickly realized that his classmates looked down on people from Mississippi. “And so I said, ‘I’ll show them,’” Dr. Massey said. “What’s the hardest course?” He chose physics because he felt he had something to prove.

Across a consortium of four colleges, he was the only student in his year studying physics. But he was never lonely. On the contrary, he loved getting lost in equations. Years later, in his memoir, Dr. Massey described a “total absorption that is as close to a meditative state as I have ever achieved.”

He rode that passion into a doctoral program at Washington University in St. Louis, where he studied how liquid helium behaved near absolute zero degrees. In 1966, he earned his Ph.D., joining a cohort of more than a dozen Black physicists across the nation who had accomplished the same feat.

Soon after, Dr. Massey moved to Chicago to work at the nearby Argonne National Laboratory, studying the strange behavior of sound waves in superfluid helium, which seemed to defy the laws of physics. His work caught the attention of researchers at Urbana-Champaign as well as Anthony Leggett, a theorist at the University of Sussex in England whose understanding of helium would later win him a Nobel Prize in Physics.

Dr. Massey at home. “Once I get involved in something, I really get involved,” he said. “It’s hard for me to be on the periphery.”Akilah Townsend for The New York Times
Argonne National Laboratory, near Chicago, in 1967. Dr. Massey conducted research there early in his career.Alan Band/Fox Photos/Getty Images

Both institutions beckoned. But with the fight for civil rights in full bloom, Dr. Massey took a faculty offer at Urbana-Champaign, drawn by the prospect of making a dent in theoretical condensed matter — the university was a leading center for research — and making a difference in the lives of Black students.

On his first night at Urbana-Champaign, Dr. Massey was sleeping on the floor of his new apartment when the phone rang. It was the president of the Black Students Association, looking for help bailing out hundreds of protesters arrested that night on campus. Already, a call to action had found him.

“I wanted to be engaged,” he said with a chuckle. “And I was engaged.”

That night would set the tone for the next two years. Dr. Massey struggled to balance research and advocacy. He advised the Black Students Association, and founded a similar group for faculty and staff. He met with university bigwigs, he said, because the school was not prepared to support Black students. Rarely did he find time to engross himself in equations.

“It really began to wear me out,” Dr. Massey said. “I was really concerned about my physics. But also, I was putting out fires; I didn’t feel like I was actually making any great contributions to racial progress.”

In 1970, a physicist involved in urban affairs convinced Dr. Massey that his efforts would be better served at Brown University in Rhode Island. There, he found his stride. He and a colleague published what Dr. Massey considers his landmark result, a theory on the movement of sound in superfluid helium that explained the behavior observed at Argonne years earlier.

He also established the Inner City Teachers of Science, connecting local high schools with Brown’s science and engineering faculty to improve college preparation for underserved students. The program elevated Dr. Massey’s reputation around campus, eventually landing him a role as dean of the undergraduate college — his first foray into administration

Paving the Way

Back in his spacious home office, Dr. Massey sat at his desk, putting the finishing touches on an email. A half-packed suitcase sat open on the table behind him; the next day, he and his wife, Shirley, would be heading to London for the Blavatnik Awards, which recognize the work of early-career scientists. In a few weeks, they would jet off again — this time to Greece, to celebrate Dr. Massey’s 86th birthday, then Monaco, to watch the Monte-Carlo Masters tennis tournament. (Once an avid tennis player, Dr. Massey sat on the board of the United States Tennis Association for two years.)

It has been a long time since Dr. Massey has done any physics. In the years after joining Brown’s faculty, he rose through the administrative ranks, accepting offers to lead national labs, foundations and societies in science. In 1993, he became the provost and vice president of the University of California, expecting to spend the rest of his life under Piedmont’s sunny skies. Then, in 1995, he went to Morehouse to fill the recently vacated role of president.

Dr. Massey was reluctant at first. In California, he was poised to become the first Black president of one of the best public school systems in the nation. And he was not keen to return to the South, a place he had worked hard to escape.

But he did. “Best decision I ever made,” Dr. Massey said. At Morehouse, his leadership style was unconventional. He hosted open office hours and informal gatherings connecting students with chief executives of companies. He tore down a wall dividing the student and faculty dining areas. Determined to bring the presidency to the people, he sometimes served food himself.

Dr. Massey, participating in a service at the Springfield Baptist Church in Augusta, Ga., during his tenure as president of Morehouse College.Erik S. Lesser for The New York Times

Many Morehouse alumni now see Dr. Massey as a blueprint for their own careers. Jeremy Brown, a mechanical engineer at Johns Hopkins University, said he felt awe upon seeing a painting of Dr. Massey while visiting the hall of directors at the National Science Foundation. Dr. Massey was the only Black person on the wall.

“I was like, ‘My portrait could be up here one day, too,’” Dr. Brown said. “And I don’t think I would have thought that had I not seen his picture.”

Thomas Searles, a quantum engineer at the University of Illinois Chicago, was surprised to learn in a report by the American Institute of Physics that Black students struggle to see themselves as physicists. “There was always Dr. Massey,” he said. But that representation did expand his notion of what was possible with a science degree, he added: “This idea of a physicist in the boardroom — I got to see that.”

Who Dr. Massey is depends on whom you ask. Scientists see him as a rock-star administrator; in the corporate world, he’s a prominent businessman. Artists know him as the former president of a world-renowned art school.

But ask him? “I’m a physicist,” he said, his voice resonant and kind, packed with the weight of an assorted life. “And I don’t say, ‘I used to be.’”

Kenneth Chang contributed reporting."

Walter Massey, a Physicist With a Higher Calling - The New York Times

No comments:

Post a Comment