Massey Papers

Scope and Content

Correspondence, lectures, publications, reminiscences, obituaries and other material relating to the career of Sir Harrie Massey.

Administrative / Biographical History

Born on 16 May 1908 in St Kilda, a suburb of Melbourne, Australia, the only child of Harrie Stewart Massey, hunter and prospector, and his wife, Eleanor Wilson. His father discovered gold in Hoddles Creek, and turned himself into a proficient practical engineer, operating his mine with machines of his own design, but he did not attain great wealth from this, and after 1914 he changed to sawmilling. Until Harrie was twelve the family lived in Hoddles Creek, a small country town, with a school of only twenty to thirty pupils. He was a precocious student, possessing an extremely good memory and the ability to work fast. This gave him time to pursue many interests in and out of school, such as natural history, astronomy, debating, and cricket (at which he was later reputed to be of professional standard). As a scholarship student in the University of Melbourne from 1925 he took the unusual and demanding course of undertaking full honours courses in both chemistry and natural philosophy in three years. In the first year of his studies he married Jessica Elizabeth, a teacher and daughter of Alexander Barton-Bruce, manager of timber mills near Perth, Australia. They had one daughter, Pamela Lois. Massey received the degree of BSc in 1927 and BA in mathematics in 1929 (both with first-class honours), and, prompted in the direction of physics by the lectures of E. O. Hercus, he accepted the suggestion of Professor Laby to take wave mechanics as the topic of his MSc dissertation. The resulting 460 page dissertation was a magisterial survey of the most current work on the new quantum mechanics, much of it originally published in German.

Massey's next step was to Trinity College and the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, where he worked from 1929 to 1933, obtaining the degree of PhD in 1932 and being involved in one of the laboratory's most fruitful periods of experimental research under the direction of Sir Ernest Rutherford. Against Rutherford's advice Massey pursued both theoretical and experimental studies; throughout his career he was to retain an unusually wide grasp of current work in physics. Experiments on the deflection, or scattering, of very fast particles when passing through matter were responsible for the discoveries of the neutron and positron then opening up particle physics in Cambridge and elsewhere. Massey chose to concentrate in particular on collision theory-an understanding of which was crucial to experiments of this kind-and the theoretician Nevill Mott asked him to collaborate in a book on the subject. Published in 1933 'The Theory of Atomic Collisions' was quickly recognized as the standard text in the field, and Massey alone was responsible for the revisions incorporated in two subsequent, much enlarged editions in 1949 and 1965.

Massey's interest in collision theory was to underlie his entire research career, leading him from electron and atom scattering to studies of negative ions and the upper atmosphere (following a suggestion from Laby) and thence into rocket research and the utilization of the space programme for basic scientific research from the 1950s. His particular gifts lay in the direction of synthesis rather than analysis: as he put it, I look for relations between things and have a pattern of linkages that helps me keep in touch with a very wide area of things (Robertson, 137). In addition to publishing over 200 papers, this unusual talent is manifested in the important research monographs he wrote, including his books on 'Negative Ions' (1938, with editions in 1950 and 1976), and, with E H S Burhop, 'Electronic and Ionic Impact Phenomena', five volumes (1952 with a second edition 1969-1974).

From 1933 to 1938 Massey was independent lecturer in mathematical physics at the Queen's University in Belfast, managing both to stretch the brighter students and support the weaker students in his undergraduate classes. In 1938 he became Goldsmid professor of mathematics at University College, London (and in 1940 he was elected fellow of the Royal Society) but he was soon taken up with war work, at first with the Admiralty on magnetic mines before being appointed in 1943 to lead a large group of theorists working at Berkeley on the separation of fissionable from natural uranium. This research was closely related to the Manhattan project to build an atomic weapon. However, the extent to which the work of the group affected the outcome of the project is unclear. Five years after his return to a war-damaged University College, Massey moved departments to become Quain professor of physics, a post he retained until retirement in 1975, serving as vice-provost at the college from 1969 to 1973.

Under Massey's direction the physics department at University College quickly changed its focus from metal physics and liquids to research on atomic and ionic collisions, particularly in relation to studies of the upper atmosphere and particle physics. The books 'Ancillary Mathematics' (with H. Kestelman, 1959), 'Basic Laws of Matter' (with A. R. Quinton, 1961), and 'Atomic and Molecular Collisions' (1979) demonstrate his commitment to undergraduate teaching and the clarity of his expositions of physics. He also popularized particle physics and astrophysics through such books as 'Atoms and Energy' (1953), 'The New Age in Physics' (1960), and 'Space Physics' (1964). He oversaw the amalgamation of physics and astronomy into the one department at University College, and its passage into the era of big science. In space research and high energy physics a pattern was established of planning, instrument development, and data analysis being undertaken at University College while experiments were carried out with facilities outside the college such as the Conseil Europen de Recherches Nuclaires laboratory in Geneva, NASA in the United States, and the rocket testing site at Woomera in Australia.

Massey's leading role in science policy in Britain, Europe, and the Commonwealth began in this period, initially in areas of physics in which he was closely involvedand while he continued an active programme in research. He served as a member of the nuclear physics subcommittee of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research from 1956, as chairman of the Royal Society British national committee on space research from 1959, and as the first chairman of the council of the European Space Research Organisation in 19645. Sir Robert Boyd comments that it was thanks to Massey's energy and initiative that Britain had a well-established domestic space research programme unparalleled elsewhere outside the superpowers (Bates, Boyd, and Davis, 488). Massey's prediction to the press in 1957 that rockets should soon be capable of reaching the moon made him a subject of the satirical efforts of Punch magazine. From 1965 to 1969 Massey was chair of the newly created Council of Science Policy, the key advisory body to the Ministry of Education and Science (later the Department of Education and Science). On giving up this position he served as physical secretary and vice-president of the Royal Society from 1969 to 1978.

Massey received many honours, including the Royal Society's Hughes and royal medals (1955 and 1958), a knighthood in 1960, and honorary doctorates of twelve universities. He died after a long illness in his home, Kalamunda, 29 Pelham's Walk, Esher, Surrey, on 27 November 1983. He was survived by his wife.

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Transferred in Nov 1996 from UCL Physics Department via Dr Bill Fox.

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