Richard Miller, pioneer of computational astrophysics, 1926–2020

March 23, 2020

Founding Chair on the Committee of Information Sciences and pioneer in numerical simulations of the formation of structure in the universe and dynamics of galaxies

Richard H. Miller died Mar. 7 in Chicago

Prof. Emeritus Richard “Dick” H. Miller, an astrophysicist, a veteran of WWII and a pioneer in numerical simulations of structure formation and galactic dynamics, died Mar. 7 in Chicago. He was 93.

During a career that spanned more than 50 years at the University of Chicago, Miller extended the possibilities of computer programming and technology to the sciences. He founded the Committee on Information Sciences in 1965, placing the university at the forefront of the revolution in information processing, data handling, and control systems.

“Prof. Miller’s work brought us into an era of computational astrophysics. What he explored using early computers and particle detectors, he wouldn’t brag about it, but it changed astrophysics. We are grateful for his lifetime of contributions to astrophysics and to the department,” said Professor John Carlstrom, Chair of The Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics.

Early career accomplishments included his work with the Institute for Computer Research, directed by Prof. Nick Metropolis, to design and build hardware for MANIAC III, the university’s experimental computer and the most powerful computer at that time. By 1965, his research had transitioned to computational astrophysics, and he founded the Committee on Information Sciences, a group whose initiatives defined the university’s computer programming and computer technology.

Richard Miller (right) built the hardware for MANIAC III, the most powerful computer at that time

Prof. Miller’s contributions ushered in computational astrophysics and pioneered a technique for creating motion pictures that depicted the evolution of galaxy structures. In the early ‘60s, he pioneered a data retrieval system that took advantage of an atom-smashing cyclotron, a newly-developed atomic particle detector known as a “wire spark chamber,” MANIAC III, and an oscilloscope. Whereas previous methodologies involved the tedious naked-eye study of thousands of pictures to locate the sparks in the spark chamber, the trajectories of particles were now expressed immediately in material form. The advancement birthed a new type of laboratory in which to carry out experiments.

By 1978 he had programmed a computer at the NASA Ames Research Center to create one of the very first realistic models of how large-scale structure of the universe forms. Evolution of structure was captured in a video, a technique that is standard now but was then well ahead of its time. It was a major breakthrough, showing events at any angle inside a cube of space 100,000 light years wide and showing evolution over two billion years in ten minutes. “Jim Peebles, a pioneer of structure formation modelling and recent Nobel Prize winner in Physics, in 1980 wrote a letter to Dick Miller commenting on just how much his simulations look like the real universe,” said Andrey Kravtsov, Professor of Astronomy & Astrophysics at the University of Chicago.

UChicago Astronomy Dept. 1950s
He was among a small faculty that included George Van Biesbroeck, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, Gerard P. Kuiper, William W. Morgan, David Nelson Limber, and William A. Hiltner

His numerical models resulted in important contributions to galactic dynamics and structure formation theory. With his simulations, astronomers saw the first demonstration of the spiral structure in a disk galaxy model. Spiral arms, emerging and spinning from the edges of a galaxy, were proved to be density waves. Prof. Miller’s models were also used to study how the rate at which stars form determines the way a galaxy evolves.

Professor Miller was also responsible for pioneering studies of numerical instabilities in N-body simulations of galactic dynamics, discovering what is now known as numerical “Miller instability” in the process.

The galactic imagery derived from numerical simulations revised the understanding of the shape of elliptical galaxies. Viewed through a telescope, an elliptical galaxy appears to be shaped like a Frisbee, but in his multi-dimensional modeling, they were seen to be prolate, or oblong.

“This work is so important now,” said Richard Kron, Professor in Astronomy & Astrophysics and Director of the Dark Energy Survey. “How he used data to inform the calculations of the internal structures of galaxies was an early use by astronomers of large-scale computing.” Kron also recalled that, back in graduate school, Miller handed him his paper on the limitations of measurements of faint light. “What I learned from him then informs how I now think about images in the Dark Energy Survey,” he said.

Dick Miller was born in Plano, Illinois, in 1926, and entered the University of Chicago in 1943 as a student in the Hutchins College accelerated program. He studied for one year before enlisting in the Navy and fighting in the Pacific Theater. The V-12 Navy College Training Program provided him with a college education at Iowa State College in Ames, from which he graduated in two years, at age 19, with a S.B. in electrical engineering. Out of gratitude, he decided to spend a year at sea completing his Navy duties with the rank of ensign.

His desire was to study physics at the University of Chicago, but the program was so oversubscribed that the university suggested he join the cyclotron program for nuclear studies. After the university’s 170-in. synchrocyclotron was completed and running in 1952, he was sent by the Institute for Nuclear Studies as an engineer to build a synchrocyclotron in Brazil. Building technology for experimental particle physics at the time was seen as a sign of prestige and power in the scientific world, as well as symbolic of sophisticated defense, but the challenges the project faced were too great and it was never completed.

Dick and Mary Funk Miller married shortly before moving to Rio de Janiero, and after his work finished, spent a month exploring Peru, Chile, and Argentina. Upon their return to Chicago in the fall of 1954, Miller completed his PhD in physics, doing graduate work under astronomer William A. Hiltner. He accepted a teaching appointment at the University of Chicago that lasted until he was 70, and became emeritus.

Dick Miller 90th
Colleagues gathered to celebrate Dick Miller's 90th birthday

Colleagues, many of whom attended his 90th birthday party, were saddened by this loss of a fixture in the department. They remembered Dick Miller as a very modest and gentle person.

Emeritus Professor Pat Palmer, who shared an office suite with Miller and Peter Vandervoort, recalled: “Dick was always curious about all kinds of physical science. He was not anxious to show off the breadth of his knowledge, which is uncommon at this university. Instead, he preferred to let one learn from conversations.” He and other colleagues marveled that Miller was as enthusiastic about building hardware as he was about theoretical astronomy.

“Dick seemed to love to tinker,” said Palmer. “He rarely volunteered it, but almost every time it came up, he seemed to know almost everything about it.” The two bonded over Palmer’s interest in working on his 1972 Chevy truck. “He gave me some tools which I will keep using as long as I am able: two sets of non-standard socket wrenches.” The wrenches were from Miller’s lab in 1950s, when he used to build instruments and install them on telescopes.

Dick Miller was devoted to his wife, Mary, who passed away in 2016. The Millers spent many decades living in downtown Chicago, especially enjoying symphony concerts, and recently moved to Hyde Park.

Since his retirement in 1996, Miller remained an active emeritus in the department and played symphony music. “He was a devoted amateur cellist,” said fellow musician Andrew Basa. “He loved to play string quartets. Every Monday he rehearsed with the City Symphony of Chicago.”

Arrangements for a memorial are forthcoming. The Montgomery Place Care Assurance Fund, the Chicago Federation of Musicians and the Chicago Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra have been suggested for donations in memory of Richard H. Miller.

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