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Massey, Sir Harrie Stewart (1908–1983)

by R. W. Home

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Harrie Massey, by Norman Wodetzki, 1974

Harrie Massey, by Norman Wodetzki, 1974

University of Melbourne Archives, UMA/I/2266

Sir Harrie Stewart Wilson Massey (1908-1983), physicist, was born on 16 May 1908 at Invermay, Victoria, only child of Tasmanian-born Harrie Stewart Massey, miner, and his Victorian-born wife Eleanor Elizabeth, née Wilson. Harrie spent his early years at Hoddles Creek, Victoria, where his father owned a sawmill, and obtained his merit certificate at the local state school in four years instead of the usual eight. He moved to Melbourne with his mother to take up a scholarship at University High School, where he was senior prefect in his final year.

Supported by a government scholarship, in 1925 Massey enrolled at the University of Melbourne (B.Sc., 1928; BA Hons, 1929; M.Sc., 1929), winning a succession of prizes and exhibitions and completing full honours courses in physics, chemistry and mathematics. No drudge, he found plenty of time for sport and relaxation, especially billiards, tennis, baseball—at which he represented the university—and his great love, cricket, at which he excelled. In 1926, while attending an Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science congress in Perth, he met Jessica Eliza Bruce, a schoolteacher: they married on 11 January 1928 at the Perth district registrar’s office.

In research for his master’s degree, Massey collaborated with C. B. O. Mohr in studying the reflection of soft X-rays from metal surfaces. These experiments were part of a program of research on X-rays led by T. H. Laby, and utilised an ultra-high-quality diffraction grating manufactured by Sir Thomas Lyle on the ruling engine built by H. J. Grayson. Massey also wrote a comprehensive 400-page critical review of the new field of wave mechanics which, invented only two years earlier, offered a revolutionary understanding of the behaviour of matter at the atomic level. With Edna Briggs, who had recently returned from Cambridge, he led discussion of ‘the new quantum theory’ at the first national conference of Australian physicists, held in Canberra in August 1928.

Securing the University of Melbourne’s Aitchison travelling scholarship, Massey left for the Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge, in August 1929. Admitted to Trinity College, he quickly built up an impressive list of publications on the application of wave mechanics to collisions between atomic particles. Several were written jointly with Mohr, who joined him in Cambridge, and with whom he continued to collaborate for many years. While most of these early papers were theoretical, he also worked with E. C. (Sir Edward) Bullard on a highly successful experimental study of the scattering of electrons in gases, which provided one of the early demonstrations of the `wave behaviour of these particles.

The Aitchison scholarship expired after two years, but Massey was awarded an 1851 Exhibition senior studentship, enabling him to remain at the University of Cambridge (Ph.D., 1932). With the future Nobel prize winner, N. F. (Sir Neville) Mott, he wrote The Theory of Atomic Collisions (1933), which quickly became a classic: Massey was largely responsible for keeping the work up to date in later editions. In 1933 he was appointed independent lecturer in mathematical physics at Queen’s University, Belfast. He proved a superb lecturer while also maintaining a prodigious output of research publications on collision theory which, in its many ramifications, remained a lifelong preoccupation. He also began a long-running study of negative ions and their role in the ionosphere. His Negative Ions (1938) largely defined the field and in a series of papers written with his student, (Sir) David Bates, he developed the theory of recombination processes that underpinned subsequent thinking about the behaviour of the ionosphere.

In 1938 Massey was appointed Goldsmid professor of mathematics at University College, London, but shortly after the outbreak of World War II he joined an Admiralty research group developing defences against German mines. He later led a group designing mines for use against German shipping. In August 1943 he went to the United States of America as a member of the British team that worked with the Americans in developing the atomic bomb. For the next two years he was the leader of a group at Berkeley, California, that investigated problems associated with the use of cyclotron techniques to separate uranium-235 from natural uranium.

Returning to London in October 1945 to rebuild his department, Massey appointed a number of mathematical physicists, with most of whom he had previously collaborated, and established a research program in experimental atomic physics. In 1950, when he transferred within UCL to the Quain chair of physics, this group went with him. For the next quarter-century, under Massey’s leadership, physics prospered exceedingly at University College, with a research program heavily orientated towards atomic and nuclear physics. The department acquired several particle accelerators and, as such machines became larger and more expensive, collaborated with the Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell and, later, with CERN, the European centre for nuclear research in Geneva.

Massey’s rate of publication remained impressive, including, besides research papers, a number of influential treatises, extended review articles and advanced textbooks, and several more popular expositions of contemporary physics. Best known was an experimental companion to ‘Mott and Massey’, Electronic and Ionic Impact Phenomena (1952), co-authored with his long-time friend and colleague E. H. S. Burhop. He also took on increasingly heavy administrative responsibilities, eventually becoming one of the most influential scientists in Britain.

Elected (1940) a fellow of the Royal Society of London, and winner of its Hughes (1955) and Royal (1958) medals, Massey was a member of the Society’s council (1949-51, 1959-60) before serving as physical secretary and vice-president (1969-78). He was a member of the nuclear physics sub-committee of the United Kingdom’s Department of Scientific and Industrial Research from 1956, of the governing board of the National Institute for Research in Nuclear Science from its foundation in 1957, and of the Research Grants Committee from 1959. Knighted in 1960, Sir Harrie became the foundation chair (1965-69) of the Council for Scientific Policy, established to advise the minister on all aspects of civil science policy. He served as vice-provost (1969-73) of University College.

When rockets, developed initially for military purposes, became available for civilian use in the 1950s, Massey seized the opportunity they offered for direct study of the ionosphere. From then until his death, he devoted a significant proportion of his time to promoting civilian space research, first in Britain—later writing History of British Space Science (1984) with M. O. Robins—and then in the Commonwealth and Europe. In 1959 he became a founding executive member of the Committee on Space Research, established by the International Council of Scientific Unions, holding that office until 1978 and serving simultaneously as chair of the British national committee.  He was a central figure in the negotiations that led to the formation of the European Space Research Organisation (later the European Space Agency) in 1962, and was elected the first chairman of its governing council.

Massey had visited Australia several times during the 1930s and 1940s, and the University of Melbourne had tried hard to persuade him to take up its chair of physics following Laby’s retirement in 1942. Later that decade many hoped that he would join (Sir) Mark Oliphant as a founding member of the Research School of Physical Sciences at the new Australian National University in Canberra. In the 1950s and 1960s his involvement in space science brought him back more frequently since the principal launch site for Britain’s rocket program was at Woomera, South Australia. So, too, did his involvement in the negotiations leading to the establishment of the Anglo-Australian Telescope at Siding Spring Mountain, New South Wales. He was a United Kingdom member (1975-83) of the AAT’s governing board, and served as its chairman in 1980-83.

In all, Massey returned to Australia more than twenty times and, in the process, had a significant impact on the nation’s science. A familiar figure in government circles in Canberra, on scientific committees, and in the press (as an advocate for atomic power and an enthusiast for space exploration), he was elected a corresponding member of the Australian Academy of Science in 1976. Among the many honorary degrees he received were an honorary LL.D (1955) and D.Sc. (1974) from the University of Melbourne. Short, wiry, with penetrating, deep-set eyes and an engaging zest for life, he was kindly and thoughtful in his relations with others. He had an astonishing memory and remarkable powers of concentration. Retaining a strong affection for his native land, he never lost his Australian accent. Massey died on 27 November 1983 at Elmbridge, Surrey, survived by his wife and their daughter. A lecture theatre at University College is named in his honour, and the Harrie Massey medal and prize was inaugurated in 1990 by the Australian Institute of Physics.

Select Bibliography

  • H. Kleinpoppen et al (eds), Fundamental Processes in Atomic Collision Physics (1985)
  • Advances in Atomic and Molecular Physics, vol 4, 1968, p 1
  • Australian Physicist, vol 18, 1981, p 135
  • Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, vol 30, 1984, p 445
  • H. de Berg, interview with H. Massey (typescript, 1970, National Library of Australia)
  • Massey papers (University College, London).

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Citation details

R. W. Home, 'Massey, Sir Harrie Stewart (1908–1983)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 19 February 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

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