News your connection to The Boston Globe

Albert Baez, 94, noted physicist who worked at MIT, father of folk singer

ALBERT V. BAEZ ALBERT V. BAEZ (Marin Independent Journal via ap)

LOS ANGELES -- Albert V. Baez, a physicist who did pioneering work with X-rays and who was the father of folk singers Joan Baez and the late Mimi Farina, has died. He was 94.

Dr. Baez, who worked for several years at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in an effort to boost science education, died of natural causes Tuesday in an elder-care facility in Redwood City, Calif.

"In all aspects of his life, he combined personal and professional roles as scientist, environmentalist, teacher, and humanitarian," the Baez family said in a statement. "In doing so, he nurtured and conveyed values representing mankind at its best."

In early 1958, a few months after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, MIT hired Dr. Baez to help in a nationwide effort to accelerate science education, part of an effort that became known as "the race to space."

The family moved to Belmont from California. He would take Joan, then 17, to see a new phenomenon, coffeehouses filled with guitar players and folk balladeers, she wrote in her 1987 memoir, "And a Voice to Sing With."

After a stint as a Boston University student, the future folk star was onstage with them.

A younger daughter, Mimi, saw her folk music career peak during her brief performance partnership with her husband, Richard Farina, who died in 1966. Mimi died in 2001.

Joan Baez had often said the seeds of her beliefs on social justice and peace had been planted by her father, who early in his life wanted to be a minister before turning to science and who later in his career turned down several positions in the defense industry to join programs that promoted world peace.

He had started in X-ray work as a doctoral student at Stanford University in the late 1940s.

In 1948, working with professor Paul Kirkpatrick of Stanford, he developed the first X-ray reflection microscope, which could examine living cells. The imaging technique is still used, particularly in medicine and in astronomy to take images of galaxies, said W. Gilbert Clark, a professor emeritus of physics at the University of California at Los Angeles, who is Kirkpatrick's nephew.

As a University of Redlands professor in the 1950s, Dr. Baez continued developing X-ray technology but took a year off to teach and build a physics laboratory at the University of Baghdad in Iraq.

Dr. Baez's time at MIT marked the beginning of a shift in his career; the work to improve science education became a cause in his life.

Dr. Baez helped make films on the teaching of high school physics before being given a broader opportunity in 1961. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization named him the first director of its science-teaching division.

Stationed in Paris until 1967, he helped developing nations improve their teaching of math and science. "Science is one of the things needed in these countries if you're going to have a base for a future economy. Otherwise they'll always be the servants of the United States," Dr. Baez wrote in an essay in the 1990 book "Mexican Voices/American Dreams."

In retirement, he remained active, including serving as president of Vivamos Mejor (Let Us Live Better). The organization is dedicated to improving quality of life through science-based education and community development projects in Latin America.

Albert Vinicio Baez was born in Puebla, Mexico, and moved to Texas when he was 2. His father, Alberto, was a Methodist minister, and his mother, Thalia, became a social worker for the YWCA.

Mr. Baez grew up in New York City and developed into a "bright, conscientious" child who had "an insatiable curiosity about everything, especially the construction of crystal set radios," Joan Baez wrote in her memoir.

He earned a bachelor's degree in math and physics from Drew University in 1933, a master's in math from Syracuse University in 1935, and a doctorate in physics from Stanford in 1950.

In addition to his daughter, Joan, Dr. Baez leaves his wife, Joan Bridge Baez, whom he married in 1936; another daughter, Pauline Bryan; three grandchildren and a great-granddaughter.