Richard Miller, pioneer of computational astrophysics, 1926–2020

Longtime UChicago physicist opened up new fields in simulating galaxies and stars

Prof. Emeritus Richard “Dick” H. Miller, a longtime University of Chicago astrophysicist and pioneer in simulating how galaxies are born and evolve, died March 7 in Chicago. He was 93.

During a career that spanned more than 50 years at the University of Chicago, Miller, PhD’57, 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 20th-century revolution in computing and information processing. He pioneered a technique for creating motion pictures that depicted the evolution of galaxy structures, ushering in the era of modern computational astrophysics. Among other findings, his techniques revised our understanding of the shape of elliptical galaxies.

“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,” said Prof. John Carlstrom, chair of the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics. “We are grateful for his lifetime of contributions to astrophysics and to the department.”

Miller was born in Plano, Illinois in 1926, and he entered the University of Chicago as part of the President Robert Hutchins’ program for young high school students. 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 an education at Iowa State College in Ames, from which he graduated in two years, at age 19, with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering. Out of gratitude, he decided to spend a year at sea completing his Navy duties with the rank of ensign.

Afterward he returned to UChicago to study physics, working in Nobel laureate Enrico Fermi’s cyclotron program while he waited for a spot to open up in the Ph.D. program. After he completed his Ph.D., he accepted a teaching appointment at the University of Chicago that would last until he was 70.

Miller’s career accomplishments included his work to design and build hardware for MANIAC III, the University’s experimental computer and the most powerful computer available in the world 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.

In the early ‘60s, he pioneered a data retrieval system for the cyclotrons that scientists were using to smash atoms. Previously, scientists had to undertake tedious, naked-eye studies of thousands of pictures to locate the sparks in the spark chamber, but Miller’s innovation meant the trajectories of particles were now expressed immediately in material form. The advancement heralded a new era of experiments for physics.

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. “In 1980, Jim Peebles, who recently was a Nobel Prize winner in Physics, wrote a letter to Dick Miller commenting on just how much his simulations look like the real universe,” said Andrey Kravtsov, a professor of astronomy & astrophysics at the University of Chicago.

Miller’s 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. Miller’s models were also used to study how the rate at which stars form determines the way a galaxy evolves.

Miller was also responsible for pioneering studies of numerical instabilities in a type of calculation called an “N-body simulation” to study the dynamics of galaxies, discovering what is now known as numerical “Miller instability” in the process. “How he used data to calculate the internal structures of stars was the first major use by astronomers of large-scale computing. This work is so important now we don’t really think about the beginnings of it,” said Prof. Richard Kron.

These 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 Miller’s multi-dimensional modeling, they were seen to be prolate, or oblong.

Colleagues, many of whom attended his 90th birthday party, remembered Dick Miller as a very modest and gentle person.

Prof. Emeritus Pat Palmer, who shared an office suite with Miller, recalled: “Dick was always curious about all kinds of physical science. He was not anxious to show off the breadth of his knowledge; 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,” Palmer said. “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.”

Miller was devoted to his wife, Mary Funk Miller, who he married in 1952 and who passed away in 2016. The Millers spent many decades living in downtown Chicago, especially enjoying symphony concerts, and recently moved to Hyde Park. After his retirement in 1996, Miller remained an active emeritus in the department, as well as playing the cello with the City Symphony of Chicago every Monday.

Arrangements for a memorial are forthcoming. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made in Miller’s name to the Montgomery Place Care Assurance Fund, the Chicago Federation of Musicians or the Chicago Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra.