Walter Massey, a physicist with a higher calling

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By journalsofus.com


And unlike depictions of theoretical physicists in pop culture (writing solitaires on blackboards, enveloped in clouds of chalk dust), Dr. Massey likes working with people. In turn, people respect him enough to say his name in the right rooms. He finishes one project and it’s not long before another falls into his lap. He also has a tendency to inherit organizations that need some direction (most recently Magellan’s Giant, facing financial turbulence.

Dr. Massey’s involvement in the telescope project came toward the end of his presidency at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. During a meeting of the board of directors of the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory in Massachusetts, Robert Zimmer, then president of the University of Chicago, approached him with a proposal to join the board of directors of the Giant Magellan. A year later, Dr. Massey was elected president.

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


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

Desperate to leave, he was overjoyed when, at age 16, he won a scholarship to attend Morehouse. But he quickly realized that his classmates looked down on the people of Mississippi. “So I said, ‘I’ll show you,’” Dr. Massey said. “What is the most difficult course?” He chose physics because he felt that he had something to prove.

In a consortium of four universities, he was the only student in his physics year. But he was never alone. On the contrary, he loved to get lost in equations. Years later, in his memoryDr. Massey described a “total absorption that is as close to a meditative state as I have ever achieved.”

He took that passion to a doctoral program at Washington University in St. Louis, where he studied how liquid helium behaved near absolute zero. In 1966, he earned his doctorate and joined a group of more than a dozen black physicists across the country who had accomplished the same feat.

Shortly 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 It later earned him the Nobel Prize in Physics..

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