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Testy Prof. Wonderful Sees Only Darkness in 'Intellectual Decay'

April 05, 1987|GERALD FARIS | Times Staff Writer

In his glory days as the wizard of physics on television, in the classroom and in lecture halls, Julius Sumner Miller used to shout, leap and wave his arms. A pithy phrase from a Greek or Roman philosopher was always on the tip of his tongue.

He used showmanship to tickle the imagination and challenge the intellect, and he insisted that the basic principles of physics--mystifying to many--can be demonstrated with such simple things as children's toys or kitchen devices.

In fact, he devised toys--among them, a wheel spun on a frame that stores energy so it can continue to spin--to enliven science for his favorite audiences, schoolchildren.

And in the kitchen? How about sticking nails into potatoes. They bake faster, because metal is a good conductor of heat. Want to cut up onions without crying? Freeze them slightly to reduce their vapor pressure.

He enjoyed telling interviewers that he was a man of high spirits and quick emotions. "You have to be filled with imagination," he said more than a decade ago. "To work with me, you must be alive, awake, and alert. You need a sense of the dramatic, you need to approach life with spirit."

But showmanship and flair have faded from Miller's life.

Gaunt and drained of energy, Miller sank into a sofa in the small den of his Torrance home the other day, looked directly at a reporter and said, "Have you ever interviewed a dying man before?"

Professor Wonderful--the name that still sticks to Miller from his days on television's "Mickey Mouse Club" in the 1950s--is dying.

"I'm gravely ill and I'm waiting for death," he said, in precise, measured tones. "I pray for it every hour since leukemia is fatal and my heart is not right. I've lost over 30 pounds. See, I'm a skinny old man."

By his own calculation, Miller, 78, has given 1,459 lectures around the world, been on television with the likes of Steve Allen and Johnny Carson, written eight books, and published more than 300 papers in professional journals.

He made 40 appearances on the Mickey Mouse Club and did a series of Walt Disney children's records on great scientists.

Miller, who was a professor at El Camino College for 22 years, nearly died after a heart attack in 1964. Last December, after another attack, he wrote a letter to friends, reporting that he was feeling "the usual ravages of the flesh." Some interpreted it as a goodby.

"The outlook is disquieting and the uncertainty a burden--a halt to my pace and a finality athwart my way of life . . . ," the letter said. "But I can still stir to the bird on the wing--to the gurgle of a brook--to the rain in my face. . . . "

He said his leukemia was diagnosed early last month after he returned from what was supposed to be a three-month trip to Australia, where he has become a celebrity over a 25-year period of lecturing, appearing on television, publishing books and even doing splashy advertisements for a candy company. He said the trip was cut short when he became "violently ill."

Miller told a reporter that he never has been "a kindly old man," and he did his best to prove it. He asked the reporter how old he was before he would see him, saying he does not talk to young people because they don't know who he is. The reporter, who is 48, passed the age test, but Miller was angry when the reporter confessed he had never seen him in the classroom or on television.

"Demonstrations of physics, that's been my business for 50 years," he said. "Why do they send someone who has never seen me?"

Miller calls himself an old-fashioned academic, brought up by his mother--"She was a Lithuanian peasant who spoke 12 languages"--and his teachers in the the rigors of precise, disciplined thinking. Many years ago, he already was saying that the intellectual life was in trouble.

"I am sorely disturbed by the intellectual decay I see around me," he told The Times when he retired in 1974. "Students are exposed to more knowledge, but they are not equipped to think. Culture is so diseased, I can but hope that the few students who leave my hands will be different."

'Easy to Be Mediocre'

Last week, he said: "We are approaching a darkness in the land. Boys and girls are emerging from every level of school with certificates and degrees, but they can't read, write or calculate. We don't have academic honesty or intellectual rigor. Schools have abandoned integrity and rigor."

Why?

"The intellectual life has started to decay. It's easier to do nothing. Nowhere in the classroom is the joy of learning cultivated. Information is merely conveyed."

Will it change?

"The young will inherit the republic, and what do they know of academic rigor? Intellectual integrity is the highest virtue, and there is little of that today. . . . It's easy to be mediocre, it's hard to acquire excellence."

The future?

"You'll see a darkness putting the Middle Ages to shame. It can't be escaped, it's over."

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