Michael S. Feld
It is with great sorrow that we report the death of our friend and colleague Michael S. Feld on April 10, 2010. Michael succumbed to multiple myeloma after an eight-year struggle. His passion and compassion for life and people from diverse communities left a strong mark on all of us and many others. We mourn the loss of a champion of science and racial equality.
Michael grew up in working class communities in New York in the 1940s and 50s. From an early age he not only excelled in math and science, he also developed a sensitivity for the underdogs of society.
He came to MIT as a freshman in 1958 and became interested in both physics and philosophy, writing a dual bachelors and masters thesis that combined laser spectroscopy experiments with the history of the recently invented laser. He joined the Pi Lambda Phi fraternity, which admitted the first black members at MIT. There Michael developed a lasting belief in encouraging minorities in science.
After a year of studies at the University of London, Michael returned to MIT as a graduate student in physics. He worked with two laser pioneers who had just joined the MIT faculty, Professors Charles Townes and Ali Javan, and completed his PhD thesis under Javan’s supervision in 1967. After a short stint as a postdoc, in 1968 he joined the MIT faculty. Just before starting his assistant professorship, Michael participated in the March on Washington organized by Ralph Abernathy and Jesse Jackson held after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Michael became a champion of civil rights and affirmative action.
During these early faculty years Michael conducted a series of experiments with Ali Javan to study the spectroscopy of atomic systems and the role played by coherent Raman processes. This work laid the foundation for the important topics of two photon Doppler-free spectroscopy, lasers without inversion, and electromagnetically induced transparency. In 1973, Michael made the first experimental observation of superradiance, a phenomenon in which an assembly of excited atoms acts collectively and spontaneously to emit light as a single giant radiator. From 1976 until his death, he directed the George R. Harrison Spectroscopy Lab at MIT.
During his career, Michael supervised more than 50 PhD students including five African Americans. Among the departments in which these students took their degrees are Physics, Chemistry, Chemical Engineering, EECS, and Mechanical Engineering.
Some of these students also resided in the Division of Health Sciences and Technology; a few earned MD degrees. The diversity of departments vividly shows the interdisciplinary range of Michael’s interests.
Michael’s first African-American student was Ronald McNair, who first came to MIT as an undergraduate summer research student in the late 1960s. McNair returned to MIT as a graduate student, where he completed his PhD under Michael’s supervision. The two men had an enormous impact on each other. McNair soon became famous as a black physicist and NASA astronaut. He died in the space shuttle Challenger explosion in 1986.
Ron McNair introduced Michael to karate; each became both apprentice and master to the other. Michael earned a brown belt under McNair’s tutelage and he then enrolled his 8-year-old twin sons, David and Jonathan, as students with McNair at a Baptist church in Central Square. The boys both earned black belts. As reported by the Boston Globe, David Feld noted, “My dad was very strong. One time I saw him rip a phone book in half; I saw him just grab it with his two hands and somehow tear it in two.”
In an interview with the online trade magazine BioOptics World, Michael said, “Then someone at MIT called to invite me to give a Christmas lecture on the physics of karate. ‘Sure,’ I said. As soon as I got off the phone I was gripped with terror – I realized that I had just agreed to give a lecture on a topic I knew nothing about! Motivated by fear, I began a crash research program, including taking strobe movies of karate strikes. Fortunately, we managed to get our act together and did well, and so we were invited to give presentations at two annual meetings of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the first in Washington, DC, and the second the following year in Denver. In the course of our research we wrote a 1979 Scientific American article, ‘The Physics of Karate,’ which attracted worldwide press interest.” Michael’s demonstrations of breaking a board with his hands became legendary in the freshman physics classroom.
Michael’s research into laser physics continued generating important results. In 1987, he began a series of experiments to study the radiation of a single, isolated atom in an optical resonator, which led to the first demonstration of enhanced and suppressed spontaneous emission and radiative level shifts in an open optical resonator. In 1994 he developed the single atom laser, a fundamental system in which a two-level atom is coupled to a single mode of the optical field.
His work also turned to applications of lasers, light, and spectroscopy to biology and medicine, especially to imaging of diseased tissue. In 1985 he founded the NIH-supported Laser Biomedical Research Center at MIT.
As reported in BioOptics World, Michael said, “All of my role models were in the area of fundamental physical science, not biomedical science – and that has given me a different perspective. It has sometimes put me at odds with the conventional wisdom of biomedical science.” At odds in the beginning, perhaps, but his methods proved successful. In 1994 Michael co-founded Newton Laboratories in Woburn, MA, which applies optics and other physics methods to solve biomedical problems. His son Jonathan is an engineer there. In 1991, Michael developed the use of Raman spectroscopy in medicine, leading to its clinical application in 2006 for diagnosing atherosclerosis and breast cancer. He pioneered the application of several light-scattering techniques to tissue for diagnosing disease. Long before cancer spread in his body, he had imaged it in many others.
At the request of President Paul Gray, from 1978 to 1982, Michael chaired the MIT Equal Opportunity Presidential committee. His leadership was recognized in 1980 with the MIT Minority Community Distinguished Service Award and in 1982 with the Gordon Y. Billard Award.
With Leo Osgood, from 1992 to 2007 Michael co-chaired the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. committee at MIT and established the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Visiting Professor program. More than 60 visiting faculty have come to MIT through this program. In 2008 he received MIT’s MLK Leadership Award for this work, “recognizing your extensive and persistent efforts to make MIT a more open, more welcoming and more harmonious workplace.”
Michael also received numerous awards for his optics work, including the Willis E. Lamb Award for Laser Science and Quantum Optics (2003) and the William F. Meggers Award of the Optical Society of America (2008), for major contributions to the foundations of laser spectroscopy, and for pioneering developments in the application of spectroscopy to biomedicine.
As reported in his MIT obituary, Michael enjoyed singing and started a group called the Spectratones, whose repertoire included songs based on poems that Michael composed about his students and colleagues. In 2009, the Spectratones performed at “Feld-Fest,” a symposium celebrating Michael’s 50 years at MIT.
Michael is survived by his wife, Alison Hearn, his sons David of California and Jonathan of Somerville, MA, and his daughter Alexandra of New York City.
MIT and the scientific community have lost a man of great compassion who devoted his life to improving the diagnosis of disease using lasers and to improving the condition of underrepresented minorities in science. We miss him deeply.
Be it resolved: