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J. Lynn Miller (1951–2001)

Published onDec 01, 2001
J. Lynn Miller (1951–2001)

Lynn Miller was born in Beech Grove, Indiana on 21 June 1951. She attended public school in New Palestine, Indiana, graduating with highest honors from New Palestine High School in 1969. Lynn entered Butler University in Indianapolis as a full-scholarship National Merit Scholar with the intention of continuing her long commitment to dance, but soon found that her interests had turned elsewhere. So in her sophomore year, Lynn put away her dance shoes and took on a course of study that led her to a BA degree in mathematics in 1973. Upon graduation, Lynn assumed a traditional role of wife and mother in New Palestine, where she and her husband built their own house and had a family of three children. But by the late 1970s, Lynn found herself restless to pursue the intellectual stimulation of a career as a scientist, so she applied for admission to the astronomy department at Indiana University. Since her mathematics background had not prepared her well for graduate school, she enrolled as a non-degree graduate student in physics at Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis in 1980.

Lynn came to the Indiana University astronomy department in 1986. She was clearly a "nontraditional" graduate student: 13 years out of college, now a single mother of three preteen children, with very little background in astronomy. But she had a burning desire to succeed despite what others told her were very long odds indeed. Actually her dream was not to be an academic astronomer at all but rather to enter the NASA astronaut corps. Her belief was that a PhD in experimental high-energy astrophysics might be the key to that dream, a dream that in fact she never lost. She was not one to take the easy path. Lynn masked great determination beneath a calm, bright, optimistic exterior.

MACRO (Monopole, Astrophysics, and Cosmic Ray Observatory) was Lynn's dissertation experiment. She received her PhD in 1994, while earning fellowships from Indiana University, Instituto Nazionale di Fisica Nucleare in Italy, and Sigma Delta Epsilon National Graduate Women in Science along the way. MACRO is an underground experiment built in a tunnel under the Gran Sasso Mountain in Italy. It was designed to search for magnetic monopoles, for cosmic sources of neutrinos and anomalous muons, and to study the composition of high-energy cosmic rays. Lynn's dissertation research concentrated on using the huge detector as an underground telescope in the search for cosmic sources of anomalous muons, several reports of which were published in the late 1980's and early 1990's. Although the probability of finding these sources was not large, the payoff for success was enormous since a "new physics" would be required as an explanation. Searching for cosmic sources is routine for ordinary photon telescopes, but the problems were quite difficult for cosmic ray telescopes underground. As a graduate student and then later as a postdoctoral fellow at Indiana, Lynn, along with fellow graduate student, Alec Habig, were able to show that MACRO could be pointed just like an ordinary telescope. She and Alec also demonstrated that MACRO was able to detect very weak signals, like those expected from cosmic muon sources. But in the end, after sifting through more than 60 million muons, it turned out that there were no cosmic muon sources. However, there was one interesting discovery that did result. After almost five years of work, they were able to detect the subtle effects of the Earth's motion through a sea of halo cosmic ray particles as it travels at 250 km/s in its orbit about the center of our Milky Way galaxy. This result was reported posthumously at the International Cosmic Ray Conference held in Hamburg, Germany, in August 2001.

Lynn joined the MINOS (Main Injector Neutrino Oscillation Search) experiment in 1994, shortly after receiving her PhD. MINOS is an experiment that seeks to determine whether the neutrino has a measurable mass or whether it is indeed a massless particle like the photon, as has been assumed since the 1930s. MINOS will make this determination by sending a beam of neutrinos underground from an accelerator at Fermilab just outside of Chicago to an old iron mine in northern Minnesota. The detectors are now being assembled, the construction of the powerful neutrino beam is underway, and MINOS is scheduled to begin taking data in 2005. Lynn's responsibilities to MINOS were again nontraditional in the sense that she was actively involved with the design, prototyping, and construction of hardware, jobs not often associated with women in the "hard" sciences. She was a primary designer for the piece of the readout chain that carries the signals from the far MINOS detector to the readout photomultiplier tubes, as well as for the very high precision optical fiber connectors needed to make the system work.

Lynn joined the physics faculty at James Madison University (JMU) in Harrisonburg, VA, as an Assistant Professor in 1998. Her colleagues all describe her as industrious, quiet, and gentle. Her passion for astronomy and enthusiasm for teaching were evident and contagious from the beginning. The non-major who could not get enough of astronomy, the major who worked with her in the laboratory, and the young female scientists she would mentor — all were engaged by a smile and a laugh, her serious commitment and passion for her work, and her ability to dream. She was a consummate professional who listened carefully, provided sound advice and tackled assignments with grace and dedicated effort. When she talked about her science, she dreamed big and argued hard. While she was working on major research projects in astrophysics, she was also building an astronomy minor program and developing a new course for the university's general education program. Lynn brought an entire universe to life for her students and she shared the richness of herself with so many others. At the time of her accident, Lynn had just finished setting up a factory at JMU to build fiber optic cables, another piece of the MINOS readout chain, and was at the point of shipping her first cables to the experiment in Minnesota. She was looking forward to becoming involved with the data analysis, a task she knew well. She was eager to be part of the team that came up with the answer to the question of whether neutrinos have mass after a decade of designing and building the experiment.

On 16 May 2001, Lynn was struck and killed by a city transit bus in Harrisonburg, VA. Lynn is remembered in many ways to those whose lives she touched. But two stand out in particular: first, by a photograph taken for an exhibit of women in predominantly male occupations along with a statement from Lynn describing her work; and second, by a memorial bench in a courtyard, located under a pair of dogwood trees on the James Madison campus. A brass plaque on the bench recognizes "an extraordinary teacher, mentor, colleague and scientific explorer." When her children recall her passion for her life and work, they quote Shakespeare and Carl Sagan, "We are such stuff as dreams are made on;" ..."we are star stuff."

Photograph courtesy of James Mason University

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