April 20, 2024

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Walter Massey, physicist by profession

Walter Massey, physicist by profession

Contrary to popular culture's depiction of theoretical physicists, who scribble alone on chalkboards, covered in clouds of chalk dust, Dr. Massey likes to work with people. In return, people consider him loud enough to speak his name in the right rooms. He finished one project, and it wasn't long before another fell into his lap. He also tends to inherit organizations that need some direction, most recently the giant Magellan Organization, which is facing financial turmoil.

Dr. Massey's involvement in the telescope project came at the end of his tenure at the faculty of the Art Institute of Chicago. During a board meeting at Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory in Massachusetts, Robert Zimmer, then president of the University of Chicago, approached him about serving on the board of the giant Magellan Corporation. One year later, Dr. Massey was elected president.

Of all his publications and accolades, there is one that 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. “If it wasn't for Morehouse, I wouldn't be where I am today,” he said.


Dr. Massey grew up in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, during the height of segregation. If you were black, you would sit on the porch watching movies, ride buses in the back and sneak through the side entrances of stores — if you could shop there at all, he recalled. When there was a white person on the sidewalk, she moved out of the way.

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Desperate to leave, he was ecstatic when, at 16, he won a scholarship to Morehouse University. But he soon realized that his classmates looked down on people from Mississippi. “So I said, 'I'll show them,'” Dr. Massey said. “What is the most difficult 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 alone. On the contrary, he liked to get lost in equations. Years later, in his country DiaryDr. Massey described “the most complete absorption in the state of meditation that I have ever achieved.”

He took this passion into his doctoral program at Washington University in St. Louis, where he studied how liquid helium behaves near absolute zero. In 1966, he earned his Ph.D., joining a group of more than a dozen black physicists across the country who had achieved the same feat.

Soon after, Dr. Massey moved to Chicago to work at 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 He later won the Nobel Prize in Physics.