David Miller: A half-century and beyond

Author(s): Tim Brouk
Photographs by: Tim Brouk

Physics Prof. David Miller at CERN

Physics Prof. David Miller at CERN.


This academic year, David Miller celebrated 50 years as a faculty member 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.

A British import, he thought he would stay only two years, but he was 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 the discipline.

“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,” Miller says.

During his time in West Lafayette, Miller has been 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, Switzerland, at the European Organization for Nuclear Research — more commonly known as CERN — the worldwide focal point of particle physics research.

Turbulent times

Miller’s move overseas from Imperial College-London University came around the same time as some major yet tragic events in U.S. history.

“It was quite a shock because two weeks after we arrived was when JFK was killed,” Miller recalls. “And, of course, it was also the time of the civil rights movement in the South.”

Miller remembers Harry’s Chocolate Shop as being the only West Lafayette watering hole, and the only movie theater being a summer-only drive-in. However, Purdue’s campus was always open and the Department of Physics was a thrilling place to be.

Although the physics department particularly has always had a very diverse population in terms of nationalities, it was the early ’60s when it began growing into what it is today, Miller says.

“The two major accelerators at Brookhaven [National Laboratory in New York] and CERN came on the air in 1960. I did my thesis work at CERN on the latest machine that was built there and the two-milelong linear accelerator built at Stanford. We were involved in the construction of one of the lines so they could do experiments there.”

In many ways, Miller’s arrival at Purdue coincided with the emergence of modern high-energy physics and the University’s commitment to having a large effort in particle physics.

“We became one of the top 10 funded groups in the country and always had a presence,” he says. “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 studying the b quark.”

Technology and facilities grew, and Miller soon found himself at the Large Hadron Collider, home to the Higgs boson discovery in 2012.

Continuing discoveries

Miller says the Department of Physics was a leader in building high-precision silicon detectors for the Higgs experiments. Much of the design and fabrication work was done at Purdue and then shipped to Geneva. The department is also one of CERN’s seven satellite data centers, allowing scientists to access information at any time.

Almost two years later, Miller says the discovery still resonates with him.

“That discovery also parallels the field’s last 50 years,” Miller explains. “It goes back almost 50 years when the Nobel Prize winners [Peter Higgs and Francois Englert] proposed that idea. There are several common threads,” he says “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. Quarks weren’t known back in the ’60s. 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.”

Miller believes the Higgs discovery has brought added interest to his department. In his 50 years at Purdue, he also can remember the excitement surrounding the Hubble Space Telescope and Sputnik that drove up enrollment.

“That’s very gratifying,” he says.

Andrew Hirsch, interim head of the Department of Physics, says Miller is “a core member of the high-energy particle physics experimental effort at Purdue.” He cites Miller’s classroom work with freshmen as a positive start for future Purdue physicists.

“David has been an outstanding departmental citizen, always aspiring to move us forward,” Hirsch says.

Miller in class

Physics Prof. David Miller (right) leads a recent class.