Julius Sumner Miller Made Physics Fun For Everyone

Let’s face it — for the average person, math and formulas are not the most attractive side of physics. The fun is in the hands-on learning, the lab work, the live action demonstrations of Mother Nature’s power and prowess. And while it’s true that the student must be willing to learn, having a good teacher helps immensely.

Professor Julius Sumner Miller was energetic and enthusiastic about physics to the point of contagiousness. In pictures, his stern face commands respect. But in action, he becomes lovable. His demonstrations are dramatic, delightful, and about as far away from boring old math as possible. Imagine if Cosmo Kramer were a physics professor, or if that doesn’t give you an idea, just picture Doc Brown from Back to the Future (1985) with a thick New England accent and slightly darker eyebrows. Professor Miller’s was a shouting, leaping, arm-waving, whole-bodied approach to physics demonstrations. He was completely fascinated by physics, and deeply desired to understand it as best he could so that he could share the magic with people of all ages.

Professor Miller reached thousands of students in the course of his nearly 40-year teaching career, and inspired millions more throughout North America and Australia via television programs like The Mickey Mouse Club and Miller’s own show entitled Why Is It So? His love for science is indeed infectious, as you can see in this segment about the shock value of capacitors.

Scintillated by Science

Julius Sumner Miller was born May 17th, 1909 in Billerica, Massachusetts, and was the youngest of nine children. His father was Latvian, and his mother was “a Lithuanian peasant who spoke twelve languages”. When Julius wasn’t busy with homework or chores on the family farm, he was consuming knowledge voraciously and “read the town’s library dry by the age of sixteen”. Years later, he used his own money to expand the library’s collection.

After high school, Julius went to Boston University and graduated in 1933 with degrees in philosophy and theoretical physics. It was impossible to find work in physics during the Depression, so Julius and his wife Alice spent two years working as butler and maid for a wealthy doctor. Finally, after sending out over 700 letters, Julius found work at a private school in Connecticut. A few years later, he was hired by the physics department of Dillard University in New Orleans in 1937 and stayed there for several years. During World War II, Julius also served as a civilian physicist for the US Army Signal Corps.

The professor makes wine glasses sing. Image via Adelaide Now

A Teacher Like None Other

In 1950, Professor Miller won a grant that gave him the opportunity to study under Albert Einstein, with whom he became lifelong friends. Einstein was his idol, and he had a collection of memorabilia, including a copy of the man’s birth certificate.

Around this time, Julius did a brief teaching stint at UCLA, but decided he wanted to be in a smaller setting. He went to teach at a junior college called El Camino in Torrance, California and stayed there until his retirement in 1974. Professor Miller was extremely popular with students throughout the years, though he was not all fun and games. He expected students to listen and work hard, and he didn’t tolerate misspelled words or misplaced punctuation.

He was also tough on his colleagues, believing that most educators weren’t rigid enough, and that students weren’t learning anything as a result. As early as the 1940s, the professor was quite vocal about the decline of education in the United States and pulled no punches when speaking about the situation. Although he enjoyed teaching anyone who would listen, Professor Miller’s favorite audience was children because “their spirit and curiosity has not yet been dulled by schools.”

Professor Wonderful, the home game. Image via Etsy

Professor Wonderful, Why Is It So?

During the 1950s, Miller made 40 appearances as Professor Wonderful on the Mickey Mouse Club giving lively demonstrations each week. The professor proved popular and launched his own TV show in 1959 called Why Is It So? from Los Angeles. After a few years, he moved to Australia and stayed there for over twenty years. Professor Miller became a beloved celebrity in Australia and visited many times over the years. He also made the U.S. late-night talk show circuit and appeared on several television shows as himself.

Toward the end of his life, he made an unforgettable Cadbury commercial including a physics demonstration of pushing a hard-boiled egg into a glass bottle unscathed. In between demonstrations, he found the time to write several books including an autobiography that’s difficult to source, and contributed over 300 papers to scientific journals. A few of the books were full of “Millergrams” — physics-based brainteasers such as this gem:

Q32: A juggler comes to a footbridge 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”).

In the spring of 1987, Professor Miller developed leukemia and died soon after at age 77, having requested no services. Instead, he willed his body to the USC School of Dentistry. The professor’s legacy lives on thanks to YouTube, where you can watch many delightful demonstrations.

[Main image source: The Age]

Thanks for the tip, [John Wayt].

38 thoughts on “Julius Sumner Miller Made Physics Fun For Everyone

  1. “He went to teach at a junior college called El Camino in Torrance, California and stayed there until his retirement in 1974. ”

    “The professor proved popular and launched his own TV show in 1959 called Why Is It So? from Los Angeles. After a few years, he moved to Australia and stayed there for over twenty years.”

    I’m not reconciling those two sentences.

    1. I think in both cases, “stayed there” should be replaced with “remained employed there”. In Australia, he was a visiting lecturer (according to Wikipedia). I’d imagine he just spent summers there.

  2. I remember him as the Professor in The Hilarious House of Frightenstein, a cheaply made show from independent station CHCH in Hamilton. They filmed an astonishing 130 episodes in 9 months (and it shows). The Professor was probably the best part.

  3. Watching “Why is it So” was the closest thing to a religion for me in my childhood / teenage years and it gave me my love of science that has lasted a lifetime. Prof. Miller also did several lectures in a series that was televised on the Australian ABC called “International Science School” which was the brainchild of Professor Harry Messel. Although the ISS is still running it is no longer broadcast in Australia, it had to make way for Unreality TV. Ah well that’s progress.

  4. “Let’s face it — for the average person, math and formulas are not the most attractive side of physics. The fun is in the hands-on learning, the lab work, the live action demonstrations…

    …but for the “…AVERAGE PERSON who wants to pursue a career in physics (as well as any of the ‘hard sciences’)…”, they understand, from the very beginning, that a complete and total understanding of mathematics is absolutely essential to achieving their goals. Indeed, a firm love of, and grounding in, mathematics goes hand-in glove with a desire to pursue a scientific education.

    I strongly disagree with the premise. If one does NOT find “math[ematics] and formulas” attractive, one had best pursue other interests. Otherwise, at best, one will have a short tenure as a scientist or engineer; at worst–a very unfulfilling, drab, unproductive, mediocre career.

    I have never encountered the writings or sayings of any engineer or scientist of any note who did not express–in one form or another–the sympathy that mathematics is the language of science.
    I don’t know how the situation can be characterized any more succinctly than that.

    1. I’m totally down with “you need to understand math to do science” but will part ways at the nececity to _love_ math.

      I’ve known some really great physicists and statisticians, and they all absolutely have the math down, no question. But they also see through the math, and I don’t know how many of them would say they love it. Does a carpenter love chisels, or does a carpenter love making stuff out of wood?

      (I know some mathematicians who love math.)

      I guess what I mean is that in physics, for instance, the math serves physics, and not vice-versa. I think it’s very useful for students, especially of basic physics as is the case here, to see the experiments first, measure second, and then see how the equations allow future predictions, and where those fall down.

      1. If you are a true craftsman, then yes: you do love your tools.

        Only a true craftsman understands, and adheres rigidly–almost to the point. some would say, of being a fetish– the deeper meaning of the aphorism, “Take care of your tools and your tools will take care of you”.

        Want to very quickly determine whether or not you’re dealing with a true craftsman, be it a bricklayer or a particle physicist? Simple–investigate the condition, and type of, his tools, and how he treats them. No other test is necessary.

        1. And no true scotsman would eat porridge.

          Some craftsmen understand that tools are tools – they’re used and replaced as they wear out of spec. It’s rather that the people who polish their micrometers are the types that never actually get anything done with them, and thus don’t deserve the title.

        2. Learning to love your tools in a way that shows understanding, care and respect is productive and I respect what you’re saying but theres a danger in that philosophy:

          I have met countless people in the two industries I’ve worked in who forget the craft in favour of the tools. As in they give so much attention to the tools, it draws attention away from the craft of how they’re actually used. Or even actually getting stuff made or done. At the even more extreme end they obsess about new better tools than practice there craft almost at all. Nerding out of tools can be alot of fun though.

          In my anecdotal experience it is better to aim for the intersection of knowledge, skill, experience, attentiveness, improvement and attitude.

  5. What is wrong with math and formulas? I don’t get it. I could understand comments like this if I was reading Better Homes and Gardens, but I expect better from the Hackaday crowd.

    1. Nothing is wrong with math and formulas; the author just said that live demos are more attractive.

      If I say that food A is tastier than food B, that does not imply that food B tastes bad.

      1. Nothing is wrong with math and formulas; the author just said that live demos are more attractive.

        Well then the author can enjoy their ENTERTAINMENT and leave physics science and engineering to others. She doesn’t have e to shove it down our throats

    1. I suspect it’s because the charge is on the in and outside of the dielectrum (the glass) rather than on the plates themselves. It is sort-of trapped on there because it is non conductive. When you introduce the conductors, you can use the static field again.
      Handling the glass jar by touching the inside and the outside will probably let some energy dissipate.

    2. My physics teacher demonstrated this with a crude Leyden jar (a glass beaker with a metal lining sitting in a metal cup). He charged it from a Van de Graaf generator, then carefully dismantled it, and held up the beaker saying “Where’s the charge?” The answer is that it is in the form of dielectric strain: the distribution of electrons in the beaker is affected by the voltage across it, and it stays that way until the capacitor is reassembled and a path established between the “plates” (in this case, the lining and the cup) for the strain to be relieved.

  6. Excellent job, Kristina!

    If there were more teachers and shows like his today then there would be fewer problems in the world. His passion for physics is contagious.

    1. Let’s face it — for the average person, math and formulas are not the most attractive side of physics.

      Aside from being untrue that’s just lazy writing. This is “true” insofar as media spent decades perpetuating the stereotypes of math being “hated”. Pathetic

  7. Reminds me of “Mr. B”, (Mr. Blackburn). AP Physics at Aquinas High School in Rochester NY, 1976. Best teacher ever. Tough as nails and fun. Just wish I could afford a Ti programmable calculator back then to do the homework. The Omron calculator with +-*/ was expensive at $35 and our family could not afford a $400 calculator.

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