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Miller, Julius Sumner (1909–1987)

by Rod Cross

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

Julius Sumner Miller, by John Milligan, 1968

Julius Sumner Miller, by John Milligan, 1968

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-vn3086852

Julius Sumner Miller (1909-1987), physicist, science educator and television performer, was born on 17 May 1909 at Billerica, Massachusetts, United States of America, youngest of nine children of Samuel Miller, farmer, and his wife Sarah, née Newmark. His father had come to the USA from Latvia and his mother from Lithuania. He was named Julius Simon but later took the name Sumner. Julius was educated at local schools and at Boston University (BS, 1932; MA, 1933) and the University of Idaho (MS, 1940). On 21 April 1934 at Brookline, Massachusetts, he married Alice Marion Brown, a maid; they had no children. He earned his living as a butler for two years.

Employed by Dillard University, New Orleans (1937-38, 1941-52) and El Camino College, California (1953-74), Miller worked in their physics departments. He was a visiting lecturer (1965-85) at the US Air Force Academy. In addition to recording science shows in the USA, he appeared on popular television programs, including ‘The Groucho Marx Show’, Walt Disney’s ‘Mickey Mouse Club’ and Johnny Carson’s ‘The Tonight Show’.

From 1962 to 1986 Miller made twenty-seven visits to Australia, primarily to give demonstrations and lectures at the annual science school for high-school students in the physics department at the University of Sydney, organised by Professor Harry Messel. The lectures were televised for years. He also presented a television program entitled ‘Why Is It So?’ for the Australian Broadcasting Commission. Delighting in showing ‘how Nature worked its wondrous ways’, he rarely offered any detailed explanations. He preferred to encourage his audience to seek the answers. Bubbling with infectious enthusiasm not normally associated with the serious scientist, he brought each presentation to life with details of the history of the subject and the origins and meanings of the words used to describe it. Each session had a strong element of drama and was punctuated loudly with phrases such as ‘Watch it now! Watch it!’ or ‘He who is not stirred by the beauty of it is already dead!’. He set traps to keep people on their toes; he would ask members of the audience to verify that a glass was empty and then berate them for not noticing that it was full of air.

Australian newspapers published a daily question posed by Miller, a ‘Millergram’, and also an answer to the previous day’s question. He also appeared on television advertisements for non-stick saucepans, Ampol petroleum and Cadbury’s chocolate. His publications were numerous: they included scores of articles in the American Journal of Physics; Demonstrations in Physics (1969); a series of books based on his television and radio shows, among them Why It Is So (1971) and The Kitchen Professor (1972); Enchanting Questions for Enquiring Minds (1982); and his autobiography, The Days of My Life (1989). Survived by his wife, he died on 14 April 1987 at his home at Torrance, Los Angeles, California. He left his body to the school of dentistry, University of Southern California. In 1993 the Australian Science Foundation for Physics established a fellowship in his memory.

Select Bibliography

  • American Men & Women of Science. The Physical and Biological Sciences, 14th edn, vol 5, 1979, p 3441
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 29 Apr 1980, p 13, 17 Apr 1987, p 3.

Citation details

Rod Cross, 'Miller, Julius Sumner (1909–1987)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/miller-julius-sumner-14961/text26150, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 21 November 2017.

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

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