Remembering Willard Miller

The School of Mathematics will host a program celebrating Willard Miller's impact on mathematics and physics, the department, and the University of Minnesota on April 9th, 2024.

Willard Miller and Separation of Variables -  the story of an exceptional research success  

Niky Kamran, McGill University 
2:30pm - 3:15pm  | 16 Vincent Hall 

Abstract: “I will describe some of Willard Miller’s outstanding and deeply influential contributions to the separation of variables theory for the Hamilton-Jacobi, Helmholtz and Dirac equations.”  

Tea in Common Room  

3:15pm | 120 Vincent Hall  

Remembering Willard Miller:  Beyond separation of variables, superintegrability  

Alexander V. Turbiner, Instituto de Ciencias Nucleares, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México 
3:45pm – 4:30pm | 16 Vincent Hall 

Abstract: “ I will focus on the heuristic value of Willard Miller’s numerous contributions to separation of variables and superintegrability, including classical and quantum n body problems.”  

Memorial Program  

5:00pm – 7:00pm | Math Library, Vincent Hall 

Professor Peter Olver will share remarks about Willard and his career, followed by memories and stories from family and colleagues. Light refreshments will be available.

Willard Miller Jr. 

1937 – 2023

Willard Miller, Jr. was born September 17, 1937 in Fort Wayne, Indiana.  As a child he discovered a collection of math books in his family's attic, and his exploration of them ignited an intense interest in mathematics.  This led Willard to undergraduate work in mathematics and physics at the University of Chicago, where the physicists tried to steer him away from math, while the mathematicians did the reverse.  This led him to graduate school in Berkeley, where he thought of doing both. He took a course on methods of applied mathematics under Bernard Friedman.  When he turned out to be the best student on the first exam, Friedman called him into his office and wanted him to be his student, not realizing that Willard was already his advisee.   The main themes of Willard's research began at that time; the title of his Ph.D. thesis was "On a Class of Vector-Valued Functions Covariant under the Classical Groups with Applications to Physics". A year after finishing his doctorate in 1963, Willard secured a postdoc position at the Courant Institute.  He was then offered a job at Minnesota and arrived in 1965.  He was soon promoted to associate professor, in 1967, and then to full professor in 1972.  In 1973, Willard spent a transformative sabbatical year in Montreal, where he came in close contact with many of his closest research collaborators and friends.

Regarding Willard's research accomplishments:  After Wigner, and then Vilenkin pioneered the remarkable connections between Lie group representation theory, special functions, and separation of variables, Willard soon became the most prominent researcher in the subject, and a mentor and role model for many younger researchers.  He was a prolific author, publishing well over 200 research papers and three influential texts on symmetry and separation of variables, as well as a later book, coauthored with Steve Damelin, on signal processing.  The vast majority of his papers were coauthored with Ernie Kalnins, who was in the University of Waikato, New Zealand, and, at times, included a wide range of senior and younger researchers.  Ernie was a frequent visitor to Minnesota while Willard often reciprocated by visiting Ernie in New Zealand.  The fact that his research output showed no sign of abating during all his years of administrative service is astonishing.  Indeed, his later discoveries in the field of superintegrable systems, both classical and quantum, provided compelling new insight into the Askey-Wilson scheme of orthogonal polynomials, and his 2012 paper on the subject, coauthored with Ernie and his former student Sarah Post, was awarded the Journal of Physics A Best Paper Prize.  In 2010, the School of Mathematics and the IMA organized the Conference on Symmetry, Separation, Super-integrability and Special Functions (S^4) in his honor and to celebrate his retirement.  The list of organizers and speakers constituted a "Who's Who" of the field of symmetry analysis and special function theory, and included many close friends, collaborators, and admirers.  Even following his retirement, his research output showed no sign of slowing down, and he was often seen hard at work in his office, at least until covid hit, and his illness prevented him from coming in to the department.

In addition to his research prowess, Willard has an exemplary and almost unparalleled record of service to the School of Mathematics and the University of Minnesota.  He was a man who was apparently unable to say no when asked to serve!  While chairing the search committee, he was convinced to serve as department head, and continued in that role for seven years (1978-1986).  During this period, the National Science Foundation (NSF) solicited proposals for a new, national mathematics research institute.  Willard along with Hans Weinberger, and George Sell spearheaded a Minnesota proposal, emphasizing applied mathematics.  After a long period, the NSF began to inform rejected applicants of their fate, but no direct news came to Minnesota until at last the NSF scheduled a site visit.  The Minnesota proposal was deemed to be so compelling that NSF decided to fund two institutes starting in 1982: a pure Institute (MSRI) at Berkeley, and the Institute for Mathematics and its Applications (IMA) at Minnesota.  After some arm-twisting, Hans Weinberger agreed to serve as director, with George as deputy director.  Thanks to Willard, George, and Hans' vision, its broad range of annual programs and workshops, and the number of visitors, both young and old, the IMA had an indelible impact on applied mathematics, in the broadest possible sense.  After Hans stepped down in 1987 and was replaced by Avner Friedman, Willard became the deputy director, serving until 1994.  Later, from 1997 to 2001, he served as the full director of the IMA until Doug Arnold took over.  While head, Willard also played a key role fostering Harvey Keynes' founding of the highly successful University of Minnesota Talented Youth Mathematics Project (UMTYMP), that continues to this day to offer accelerated classes in mathematics to talented junior high and high school students.  Between his stints at the IMA, Willard served as associate dean (1994-1997) and, for a brief period (July-November, 1995), acting dean of the Institute of Technology (now the College of Science and Engineering).  In 2008, he briefly resumed his role as Acting Deputy Director of the IMA.  In 2005, in recognition of his many years of service and his research prominence, Willard was appointed College of Science and Engineering Distinguished Professor.

Sadly, Willard died on October 29, 2023.  He is survived by his wife Jane, son Stephen, daughter Andrea, and granddaughter Kalinda. His far-reaching impact on the School of Mathematics, the University of Minnesota, and the broader mathematical community continues unabated.

Willard Miller's archived website

Start date
Tuesday, April 9, 2024, 2:30 p.m.
End date
Tuesday, April 9, 2024, 7 p.m.

Vincent Hall
University of Minnesota
Minneapolis, MN