Legendary investor and philanthropist William H. "Bill" Miller III has made a lead gift of $50 million in a combined $75 million philanthropic effort to support Johns Hopkins University's Department of Physics and Astronomy.
Miller's $50 million commitment will fund endowed professorships, postdoctoral fellowships, and graduate research, and will provide ongoing support for research infrastructure. His gift also served as the impetus for two anonymous donors to support the department as well, expanding to $75 million the funding to advance key areas of physics research.
The gift will propel one of the nation's most storied departments of physics to new heights—expanding research into emerging subfields of study and attracting promising young researchers, Johns Hopkins University President Ron Daniels said.
"The support Bill Miller has shown Johns Hopkins is historic," Daniels said. "Four years ago, Mr. Miller committed what is believed to be the largest ever gift to a university philosophy program, and now he has made an equally impressive gift to the study of physics and astronomy. We are endlessly grateful for his generosity that is driving our scholars to explore everything from the human condition to our understanding of the universe and our place in it. A philanthropic investment of this magnitude will be a standard-bearer for how a robust physics and astronomy department can broaden its research, engage in collaborative exploration, and advance to the front lines of emerging areas."
Said Miller: "Physics seeks to understand reality at its most fundamental level. It is the bedrock on which the other sciences rest. I am delighted to be able to make a gift to Johns Hopkins physics that will enable it to add new resources and continue to build on its distinguished history."
At the center of Miller's gift is funding for young scientists. Support for these future leaders in physics and astronomy includes the creation of 10 prize postdoctoral fellowships and 10 endowed graduate research fellowships. The gift will also support the establishment of three endowed professorships, a cohort of senior and junior level faculty lines, and funding for research infrastructure such as laboratory equipment and instrumentation. In all, this new philanthropic support will enable the department to grow from its current 33 faculty to 46 over the next five years.
"The visionary research currently underway in our physics and astronomy department will be enhanced by this gift in vital ways that could potentially change our view of the universe," said Chris Celenza, dean of the university's Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, of which the Department of Physics and Astronomy is a part. "Mr. Miller's extraordinary gift will enrich the scholarly and collaborative pursuits of our faculty and students for decades to come."
The Department of Physics and Astronomy has a notable history dating back to 1876, when it became the first physics department in the United States dedicated to research. One of the most significant events in the department's modern history occurred in 1981, when NASA chose Johns Hopkins as the site for the Space Telescope Science Institute. This decision transformed Johns Hopkins into one of the nation's premier centers for astronomy and also raised the profile of the physics department, which embraced a name change in 1984 to the Department of Physics and Astronomy. In 1991, the department moved into its current space, the Bloomberg Center for Physics and Astronomy, complete with a rooftop observatory dome that is home to the Morris W. Offit Telescope. The department has attracted numerous remarkable faculty members, including two Nobel laureates and recipients of prestigious global awards such as the Gruber Cosmology Prize, the Simons Investigator Award, and a McArthur Fellowship.
Today, the department's expertise is distributed in three primary areas: astronomy, condensed matter physics, and particle physics. Its experimental and theoretical faculty members are renowned for their work in areas such as astrophysics, cosmology, big data, quantum materials, extra-galactic astronomy, particle-theory model building, and dark matter detection.
"Because of Mr. Miller's gift, Johns Hopkins will be an even more enticing place for young physics students and scholars to learn from our preeminent physicists," said Timothy Heckman, professor and department chair. "Our faculty, in turn, will have the privilege of preparing the next generation of brilliant physicists. Such a financial venture will have an astounding impact on discovery that could potentially reveal new truths about some of the deep mysteries of the universe and how we live in it."
In recognition of Miller's gift, the department will be renamed the William H. Miller III Department of Physics and Astronomy. The department currently carries an honorific naming in recognition of the department's first chair, Henry A. Rowland, who was known as one of the most significant physicists of the 19th century for his work in electricity, heat, and astronomical spectroscopy. The department chair's position will now be named for Dr. Rowland, and the university will seek additional opportunities to honor his legacy.
Michael Turner, an astrophysicist at the University of Chicago, said a gift of this scale will enhance the study of physics on a broad level.
"Astronomy and physics faculty at Johns Hopkins have been making breakthroughs that reveal our place in the universe, from the discovery of dark energy to mapping the universe today and at 380,000 years after the beginning. This extraordinary gift will enable them to continue to make the really big discoveries that only happen when you have the financial freedom to pursue edgy research. The support earmarked for young scientists is a crucial investment in the future of American leadership in science, and I can't think of a better place to be a postdoc or graduate student than Hopkins—by the way, is there an age cutoff for Miller Fellows?"
Miller is the founder and chairman of Miller Value Partners and formerly the longtime manager of the Legg Mason Capital Management Value Trust. Miller serves on the Johns Hopkins University board of trustees. He majored in economics and European History at Washington and Lee University, graduating with honors in 1972. He later served as a military intelligence officer overseas and studied philosophy at Johns Hopkins before turning to his career in investments. In 2018, he made a $75 million gift to Johns Hopkins' Department of Philosophy, believed to be by far the largest gift ever to a university philosophy program.