Physics Prof. David Miller discusses 50 years at Purdue


Miller at CERN

Physics Prof. David Miller at CERN.

On Nov. 3, Prof. David Miller celebrated 50 years in the Purdue University Department of Physics.

Over the half-century, he has seen much change on campus, off-campus and in his field of particle physics.

The British import thought he would stay two years, but he got swept up in the excitement of an emerging field. In the early 1960s, when Miller was in graduate school, particle physicists were developing new technology and making landmark discoveries at a rapid rate. He quickly jumped at the chance to attend Purdue, which was already an American force in particle physics.

During his time in West Lafayette, Ind., Miller was on the forefront of multiple particle discoveries, from the b quark in the early 1970s to the Higgs boson discovery in 2012.

Still with a slight English accent, he teaches two classes in the fall and in the spring he continues his research in Geneva at CERN, the birthplace of the Higgs.

Question: What were your first few years at Purdue like? What are some of your most vivid memories?

Answer: It was a cultural change. I did my university work at Imperial College-London University, and it was very normal at that time to get experience and come to America, somewhere that was doing good science, which Purdue was doing.

It was quite a shock because two weeks after we arrived was when JFK was killed. And, of course, it was also the time of the Civil Rights movement – not so much here – particularly in the South.

Other than Harry’s, there was no liquor sold on the West Side. There was a drive-in movie theater on (U.S.) 52 but it didn’t open until after the students left for the summer. I guess it was something they thought students shouldn’t be doing while in school.

But the university itself was very much culturally and very much like the people I knew at Imperial College. The Physics department particularly has always had a very diverse population in terms of nationalities and so on. It grew in the ‘50s into a major physics department and then it was the beginning of the ‘60s when it really started here in the way we know it today. 1960 was when the two major accelerators at Brookhaven (National Laboratory in New York) and CERN came on the air. I did my thesis work at CERN on the latest machine that was built there and the two-mile long linear accelerator built at Stanford (University). We were involved in the construction of one of the lines so they could do experiments there. So I really mark the start of modern high-energy physics and of the physics department at Purdue’s commitment to having a large particle physic effort here. We became one of the top-10 funded groups in the country and always had a presence. We always had at least three experimental efforts going at the same time. I’ve never run an experiment at Fermilab but we’ve always had a strong group there. I ran experiments at Stanford SLAC (National Accelerator Laboratory) and I followed at Cornell (University) studying the b quark.

The facilities got larger and larger, culminating in the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. Basically, the CDF experiment at Fermilab and the experiment at Cornell ended so we all coalesced onto the CMS experiment at the Large Hadron Collider. The path of our group has basically followed the same pattern that all of high-energy particle physic has done in that evolution.

Q: What was your team’s primary role at CERN and the LHC?

A: In particular, we’ve built up an expertise in building high precision silicon detectors, which were at the heart of every experiment. In collaboration with a few local groups at Fermilab, built part of the CMS detector, kind of a standalone piece, which is integrated into the whole experiment. A lot of the fabrication and design work went on here and then it was shipped to the detector and installed.

The data produced in a year is an enormous amount of data so we are one of the seven data centers that get data shipped from CERN. People can access our facility worldwide. The World Wide Web came online around 1995 exactly for this purpose. Although there have been networks before like DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects), the World Wide Web was the first worldwide network to have the HTML protocols that was easy for anyone to use. CERN gave that to us royalty-free.

Q: Now that it’s been more than a year since the Higgs announcement, what are your thoughts about that exciting time over at CERN?

A: That discovery also parallels the field’s last 50 years. It goes back almost 50 years when the Nobel Prize winners (Peter Higgs and Francois Englert) proposed that idea. There are several common threads. … There are physics goals to understand the universe around us, and as we do experiments, we learn and progress. There was no prediction of what the mass of the Higgs would be. And going back to that day, quarks weren’t known back in the ‘60s also. However, nature has been very kind in that every time we opened up a new energy regime, we made a major discovery, the most recent being the Higgs.

Coupled with the thrust of the physics that we should be doing is the technological achievements in building the facilities that allow us to do that work, culminating in the Large Hadron Collider, which has 800,000 liters of liquid helium to make the magnets work -- and coupled with that the advances in electronics that allows us to build the detectors.

The physics, the technical side of the detectors, the technical side of the accelerators and computing has all progressed in parallel fashion. There have been parallel growths in all of the tools we need to do the physics that we want to do. It’s like filling in a big painting.

The discovery of the Higgs was not unexpected in some ways. But on the other hand, one never knows exactly what nature has.

All of the detailed work we did on this painting pointed to the fact that the Higgs had to exist in addition to the original prediction 50 years ago. Indeed, that turned out to be correct.

It was extremely exciting and still is, actually.

Men and women on the street, just normal people, know about the Higgs. They find it exciting, too. It’s really rewarding.

Q: Have you noticed an uptick in interest in Purdue Physics whenever a new particle was discovered?

A: Particle physics has always been exciting. It’s like the kind of thing with children who want to take things apart: We want to take the universe apart to see how it works.

There’s always a time lag and we are affected by certain things. In the early to mid ‘90s, the number dropped in terms of students who were interested in physics, both in the United States and worldwide. Now, it’s come back and the number of physics majors is setting records.

Just like Sputnik generated the space program and the Hubble Telescope generated interest in students, so, yes, we see those effects.

Q: What classes are you teaching these days?

A: One of them is a course I started myself called “Current Physics and Forefront Research,” and it’s for first semester undergraduates. So the reason why I started it almost 20 years ago was due to students being very excited about what they see like the Hubble Telescope, but then they come in and the courses they take, which they have to, are Mechanics and Electricity and Magnetism -- the tools, the education you need. But they kind of lose track of the connection these courses have with the things that excited them and their career path. … The course has been very successful and it leads them to a scholarship program where the top 20 get one semester of research paid for. So in their second semester, they could get involved in one of our research groups.

The other class I teach is Physics 214, which is an entry-level, algebra-based course put in for the Agriculture school. Most schools have science requirements. However, about half of the class now comes from Krannert (School of Management). There’s been a big influx of students studying economics, accounting, management and so forth. They started coming to this course a couple years ago and now it’s about half. The enrollment has gone up and that’s very gratifying.

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