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    President Emeritus Walter E. Massey '58, a Physicist With a Higher Calling

    March 19, 2024

    Originally published on March 19, 2024 on

    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.

    Screenshot 2024-03-19 at 11.07.44 AMAt 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.

    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.”

    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.”

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