Memorial service set May 24 for physicist, X-ray optics pioneer Albert Baez
Stanford alumnus and father of Joan Baez developed optics for X-rays that enabled special microscopes and telescopes
BY DAWN LEVY
A memorial honoring Albert Vinicio Baez—physicist, pacifist and father of three daughters including folk singers Joan Baez and the late Mimi Fariña—will be held Thursday, May 24, at 4 p.m. in Memorial Church. The gathering, held in the style of the Society of Friends, is open to the public. Joan Baez will not perform at the memorial.
Albert Baez, who co-invented the X-ray reflection microscope with Stanford physics Professor Paul Kirkpatrick in 1948, earned his physics doctorate from Stanford in 1950. He died of natural causes March 20 at the Redwood City care home where he had lived the past three years. He was 94.
Born in Puebla, Mexico, on Nov. 15, 1912, Baez was the son of a Methodist minister who brought his family to the United States when Albert was 2. He grew up in Brooklyn, where his mother was a social worker for the YMCA.
He earned a bachelor's degree in mathematics from Drew University in 1933 and a master's degree in physics from Syracuse University in 1935. In 1936, he married Joan Chandos Bridge, the daughter of an Episcopalian minister. The couple became Quakers and had three daughters.
During his graduate studies at Stanford, he developed the optics for X-rays that decades later would enable special microscopes and telescopes, said George Castro, a retired IBM scientist who published a journal article with Baez. For his thesis work, Baez with Kirkpatrick developed a way to use a pair of mirrors at right angles to focus X-rays, Castro said.
But a problem hindered the immediate utility of mirror pairs. Light hit the mirrors at a tiny angle. That meant the mirrors could catch only a small fraction of light from the X-rays. The mirrors weren't of much use until narrow, brilliant X-ray beams were produced to enable brighter images. Producing those brilliant beams required the development of a circular subatomic-particle accelerator called a synchrotron. For this reason, what came to be known as a Kirkpatrick-Baez pair of mirrors had to wait a couple of decades before their use in the first X-ray microscopes.
Synchrotrons, invented and built in the late forties and early fifties, used magnets to bend the path of particles traveling through a hollow ring, Castro said. An unwanted byproduct was the emission of intense X-rays when particles were forced to bend. At the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center in the mid-sixties, he said, the X-ray byproducts became useful tools for studying matter at the atomic scale and formed the basis of what in 1977 became known as the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Laboratory.
After earning his doctorate, on his own Baez developed another innovation. Lenses use refraction to focus light, but glass and other materials cannot refract X-rays. Baez developed zone plates—concentric circles of alternating opaque and transparent materials—to use diffraction instead of refraction to focus the X-rays.
"Again, he was 20 years ahead of his time because the light had to be very pure, so it needed to come from something bright like a synchrotron," Castro said. "Plus, the lines had to be fine, like the microcircuits made in the late fifties and early sixties using lithography in semiconductor chips."
Today, the world's highest-resolution X-ray microscopes employ Baez's zone-plate technology to look at features as small as carbon structures in living cells, Castro said. They can detect features as fine as 15 nanometers—about 10 times the width of an atom, he said.
From 1950 to 1956, Baez was a professor at the University of Redlands, where he used a small-point X-ray source to produce X-ray holograms. In 1951, he took a yearlong leave when the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) hired him to establish the physics department and laboratory at Baghdad University, where he also taught. From 1961 to 1967, he directed science teaching for UNESCO in Paris.
In 1960, at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Mass., he developed optics for an X-ray telescope. The optics he developed made it into telescopes that were launched into space, Castro said.
Throughout his career, Baez taught and conducted research at institutions including Harvey Mudd College, Open University, MIT, Harvard, the University of California-Berkeley's Lawrence Hall of Science, the Algerian Institute of Electricity and Electronics and the National Polytechnic Institute of Mexico.
Baez chaired the Commission on Education of the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources from 1979 to 1983.
In 1988, he founded Vivamos Mejor/USA to support education and economic development in rural Mexico and served as its president. In 1995, the Hispanic Engineer National Achievement Awards Corp. established its Albert V. Baez Award for Technical Excellence and Service to Humanity, of which Castro was the first recipient.
Baez authored the 1967 textbook The New College Physics: A Spiral Approach, the 1987 book The Environment and Science and Technology Education and the 1988 memoir A Year in Baghdad. From 1967 to 1974, he made almost 100 films about physics for the Encyclopedia Britannica Educational Corp.
In 1991, the International Society for Optical Engineering awarded him and Kirkpatrick the Dennis Gabor Award for pioneering contributions to the development of X-ray imaging microscopes and X-ray imaging telescopes. Kirkpatrick died in 1992.
A resident of Greenbrae, Calif., for 25 years, Baez is survived by his wife, Joan Bridge Baez of Woodside, Calif.; brother Peter Baez of Alexandria, Va.; daughters Joan Baez of Woodside, Calif., and Pauline Bryan of Carmel Valley, Calif.; three grandchildren and one great-granddaughter.
In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations to the Albert V. Baez Youth Services Fund at Bread & Roses, an organization founded by his daughter Mimi. Bread & Roses provides quality live entertainment free to people who live in institutions or are otherwise isolated from society. Send donations to: Bread & Roses, 233 Tamalpais Dr., Suite 100, Corte Madera, CA 94925; or phone (415) 945-7120.