In our Celebrating Innovator’s series, Artemis highlights science and engineering pioneers whose vision, grit, and tenacity led to today’s ultra-high performance tech. In our most recent installment, we explored the life and work of Hedy Lamarr—a mid-Century communications technology pioneer whose contributions to signal technology helped enable modern cellphones. This week we spotlight Albert Baez, X-ray technology innovator, educator, antiwar protestor, and activist for global peace. Among his most significant achievements we count the fathering of folk music legends Mimi Farina and especially, Joan Baez.
Born in Puebla, Mexico in 1912, Albert Baez was still a toddler when he immigrated to the United States with his parents. The family settled in Brooklyn where his father was a Methodist minister and his mother was a social worker for the YMCA. They instilled in Albert the humanitarian ethos that would ultimately guide his academic, professional, and personal pursuits. In her memoir, And a Voice to Sing With, daughter Joan Baez observed that her father was a “bright, conscientious” boy who had “an insatiable curiosity about everything, especially the construction of crystal set radios.”
Dr. Baez—affectionately known among family, students, and friends as “Professor Al”— earned a bachelor's degree in mathematics from Drew University in 1933 and in 1935 a master's degree in physics from Syracuse University. In 1936, he stepped away from his academic studies to marry Joan Chandos Bridge, the daughter of a Scottish minister. The couple shared pacifist values and eventually had three daughters: Pauline (who led a private life), Mimi, and Joan, who became one of the most prominent anti-war protesters and social activists of the 1960s. In addition to her impact on the peace movement, Joan Baez’s complex relationship with rock icon Bob Dylan was for decades the stuff of pop culture legend. Now in her early 80s, Ms. Baez continues to record, write, and take action on behalf of social concerns that also moved her father.
In the late 1940s, the Baez family moved to California where Albert pursued a doctorate in physics at Stanford.
EXPANDING THE X-RAY TECHNOLOGY FRONTIER
In 1948, while still a graduate student working with doctoral advisor Paul Kirkpatrick, Baez developed the X-ray reflection microscope for the examination of living cells—a huge leap forward for science that is still in use today. After graduating in 1950, Baez continued to expand the frontier of X-ray technology. He eventually developed techniques that led to X-ray holograms and in 1960 created the optics for an X-ray telescope that have since made their way into space.
During the 1950s, Baez’s extraordinary talents made him attractive to the defense industry which attempted to recruit him to fight the Cold War. But Baez—committed to pacifism—refused every lucrative offer. His family supported Albert’s decisions and lived with few creature comforts. “We would never have all the fine and useless things little girls want…” Joan Baez recalled in her memoir. “Instead we would have a father with a clear conscience. Decency would be his legacy to us.”
That legacy was underscored by Dr. Baez’s choice to become director of UNESCO’s science teaching division over defense industry employment. With UNESCO in 1951 he spent a year establishing the science department at the University of Baghdad, Iraq. Later, from 1961 to 1967, Dr. Baez returned to UNESCO where he helped develop science programs in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Arab states while stationed in France.
INNOVATING AND INFLUENCING GENERATIONS
Medical science, defense, and astrophysics are modern industries that rely on Albert Baez’s early X-ray innovation. Throughout a storied career that bridged the sciences and humanities, Baez conducted research and taught at numerous institutions around the globe. He wrote textbooks and published a memoir A Year in Baghdad, co-authored with his wife. Baez also created early educational videos for high school students, including this explanation of elliptical paths and this video in which he explains vectors.
In 1995, the Hispanic Engineer National Achievement Award Conference (HENAAC) established the Albert V. Baez Award for Technical Excellence and Service to Humanity. Among his many other honors, Dr. Baez was in 1998 inducted into the HENAAC Hall of Fame.
Dr. Baez died March 20, 2007.
Albert V. Baez was a visionary with great capacity, focus, and fortitude. As a Mexican-American scientist, he shattered numerous academic, professional, and cultural barriers. Dr. Baez worked tirelessly to advance X-ray technology while improving science education around the world. He demonstrated grit and conviction by bypassing a lucrative career in favor of research, teaching, and tireless activism in the pursuit of peace and global collaboration. We admire the profound humanity in his work, which empowers us to look close and see far.