American physicist Professor Julius Sumner Miller was the brilliant and wonderfully mad professor who introduced young Australian television viewers to science with his famous signature question, “Why is it so?”
Born in Billerica, Massachusetts, of immigrant small-farming parents, he studied at Boston University and went on to give more than 30,000 lectures around the world.
The eccentric professor, Miller visited Australia 27 times. He even starred in his own Aussie television series – titled, unsurprisingly, Why Is It So? between 1963 and 1986.
He was deep, forthright, aggressive, brusque, and more than a little scary, but a generation of children grew up watching the professor on Australian television as he popularised science through simple household experiments.
Miller never tried to deliberately harm or humiliate any of the high school students on The Julius Sumner Miller Show, but he knew that if he pushed them far enough, almost certainly the answer would come out of them, and he tried to get them to make that jump.
He made science accessible to everybody and turned the boring things you learned at school into fun.
In the lecture theatre or on the television screen, the professor was an awesome sight in full cry. He gesticulated, he talked all around the subject, he brushed his hands through his hair. Boiled eggs were sucked into milk bottles. Candles were lit and extinguished for lack of oxygen.
In later years, he also advertised Cadbury’s Dairy Milk chocolate – “a glass and a half of full cream milk in every bar” made Professor Miller the best-known scientist in Australia.
Professor Miller was diagnosed with leukaemia in early March 1987 and died at his home in Los Angeles in April of the same year. He was 78.
“I find this place where I get the mostest light – the mostest light. The mostest. That’s the superlative of ‘most’. I’m reciting something of Euclid. Beautiful – you should read it. ‘Normal’ does not mean ‘ordinary’ or ‘commonplace’. It means ‘perpendicular’ in our language”.