The original science personality for children’s television was born today in 1909. Now WE know em

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Julius Sumner Miller was born May 17, 1909 in Massachusetts as the youngest of nine children.

His Lithuanian mother spoke 12 languages.

Miller graduated with a Philosophy degree and then a Master’s degree in Physics from Boston University in 1933.

Due to the Depression, Miller ended up working as a butler for a wealthy Boston doctor for two years.

He fell in love with and married the doctor’s maid Alice Brown.

After applying for over 700 jobs, Miller was offered in 1937 a place in the Physics Department of Dillard University, a private, African American liberal arts college in New Orleans.

During World War II, Miller worked as a civilian physicist for the U.S. Army Signal Corps while holding fellowships in physics at the universities of Idaho and Oklahoma and was a Ford Foundation Fellow at UCLA.

Then in 1950, Miller enrolled in the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, N.J. where he became a student of Albert Einstein.

Miller soon became a lifelong friend of Einstein and went on to amass a collection of Einstein memorabilia that included Einstein’s birth certificate.

Miller also taught at Princeton but disliked large institutions, leaving in 1952 to join the Physics Department at the then small El Camino College in Torrance, California.

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He had an immediate impact on student enrollments due to his great popularity and his instantly recognizable casual hair and horn-rimmed eyeglasses.

Miller was intolerant of misspelled words and misplaced punctuation and often angered his colleagues because he felt the students were not learning enough.

During an interview in the 1940s, Miller stated that intellectual life in America was in trouble, a belief he held for the rest of his life.

“We are approaching a darkness in the land. Boys and girls are emerging from every level of school with certificates and degrees, but they can’t read, write or calculate. We don’t have academic honesty or intellectual rigor. Schools have abandoned integrity and rigor.”

From 1963 to 1986, Miller became the visiting lecturer for the Physics Department of the University of Sydney and from 1965 to 1985 at the US Air Force Academy.

Television

Miller began hosting an educational program, “Why Is It So?” in 1959 on KNXT Channel 2 in Los Angeles.

From 1962 to 1964, Miller was Disney’s “Professor Wonderful” on new introductions, filmed at Disneyland, to the syndicated reruns of The Mickey Mouse Club.

During the same period, he appeared on a semi-regular basis, performing physics experiments, on Steve Allen’s late night TV show in Hollywood.

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Miller’s first television appearance in Australia was on Bob Sanders People in 1963. In an improvised physics demonstration on that show, he attempted to drive a straw through a raw potato. A paper straw does not have the strength but if you pinch the end, the trapped air acts as a piston, easily piercing the potato. For the first time in his career he could not get it to work and loudly exclaimed “Australian straws ain’t worth a damn”.

The next morning, Miller arrived at his Sydney University laboratory to find one million drinking straws on the floor with a telegram reading “You might find one of these fitting your requirements”.

He later stated “I sat amongst the straws with straws stuck in my hair and ears. But clearly I had made a mistake. I should have said: “Australian potatoes ain’t worth a damn,” and I’d have cornered the potato market!”

Shortly after this show, Miller was offered a job presenting science for ABC Television.

When asked how much money he wanted, he listened to the offer then “multiplied it by a factor between two and ten”.

Due to budget constraints the offer was withdrawn but an agreement was reached for Miller to host his own science based TV series which was filmed at the University of Sydney where he taught. Why Is It So? (his eventual stock phrase), was broadcast from 1963 to 1986 and became an instant hit known for its “cool experiments, interesting science, and fantastic hair.”

The 1960s program became Demonstrations in Physics (also called Science Demonstrations when it was aired on American Public television).

Miller introduced each episode with the line: “How do you do, ladies and gentlemen, and boys and girls [sometimes adding “and teachers”]. I am Julius Sumner Miller, and physics is my business.”

Miller was also one of the team of celebrity lecturers (including Professor Messel, the astrophysicist, and the young James Watson, fresh from his triumphant co-discovery of the helical structure of DNA, but decades ahead of his work on the Human Genome) in the University of Sydney’s pioneering “Summer School of Science”, broadcast early in the morning during Australia’s long summer holidays in January, around 1963.

“My first TV series on demonstrations in physics – titled Why Is It So were now seen and heard over the land. The mail was massive. The academics were a special triumph for me. They charged me with being superficial and trivial. If I had done what they wanted my programs would be as dull as their classes! I knew my purpose well and clear: to show how Nature behaves without cluttering its beauty with abtruse mathematics. Why cloud the charm of a Chladni plate with a Bessel function?”

Miller’s on-air popularity was due to an enthusiasm not normally associated with serious science. Shows would be liberally sprinkled with phrases such as “He who is not stirred by the beauty of it is already dead!” and he also liked to trick the audience. A common ploy would be to hold up an empty glass and ask guests to confirm it was empty….then chide them for not noticing it was full of air. Before each demonstration he would usually ask for a show of hands to indicate which of several results they expected. Often he would then add “hands up those who don’t care”.

In 1964, Miller suffered a near fatal heart attack. Scheduled to give a lecture in Australia, he sent Sydney University a telegram saying; “I’ve dropped dead here.” He would suffer a second heart attack in 1986.

In 1966 questions from his show with an answer to the previous day’s question were published as “Millergrams” for The Australian newspaper. 112 of these questions were published as a book “Millergrams; Some Enchanting Questions for Enquiring Minds”. Further books were published in 1967: “The Second Book of Millergrams: Some More Enchanting Questions for Enquiring Minds” and 1988: “Why is it So?: The Very Best Millergrams of Professor Julius Sumner Miller”.

Sample Millergram:

Q32: A juggler comes to a foot-bridge of rather flimsy design. He has in hand four balls. The maximum load is no more than the juggler himself and one ball. Can he get across the bridge by juggling the balls, always having at most one ball in the hand (and three in the air)?

A: No. A falling ball exerts a force on the hand greater than its own weight.

Rather, a ‘thrown’ ball exerts greater force than a ‘held’ one. That is, the additional force equal and opposite to that imparted to a flung ball, in addition to the juggler’s mass, would exceed the bridge’s tolerance (the bridge can tolerate a juggler and held ball, but not the additional downward force associated with forcing a ball ‘up’).

Miller appeared as “The Professor” in the Canadian series The Hilarious House of Frightenstein in 1971, in a 2- to 3-minute segment each episode where he demonstrated physics experiments and explained the principles involved.

Miller was also an occasional guest in the 1970s on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson in the United States.

In February 1987, Miller became ill while visiting Australia and returned to the United States where he was diagnosed with leukemia.

Julius Sumner Miller died six weeks later on April 14, 1987, in Torrance, California.

Miller willed his body to the University of Southern California’s School of Dentistry, no services were held at his request.

Professor Miller’s wife, Alice Brown Miller, wanted to perpetuate the memory and achievements of her husband, and so conceived the idea of the Julius Sumner Miller Foundation, which was established in 1998.

The Cadbury-Julius Sumner Miller Scholarship for Academic Excellence was set up to provide undergraduate scholarships in the School of Physics at the University of Sydney.

In 1993 the Australian Science Foundation for Physics established the Julius Sumner Miller Fellowship in his memory. The fellowship is currently held by Karl Kruszelnicki, best known as “Doctor Karl” for his appearances on Australian radio and television as a science commentator and author.

Miller remains popular in Australia, where he is still quoted. As Professor Julius Sumner Miller often asked, “Why is it so?” and its variations are still often used in newspaper articles that pose questions unrelated to science.

Now WE know em

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