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The Art of Physics

By France Griggs Sloat

Ray Miller made a career of science, but he created a world of art at home. It’s a world he cherishes, like the many things in it—his rural White Oak homestead where he’s lived for 40 years, his wife, Ruth, whom he married 44 years ago, their family of six children. He studied physics at Xavier and loved it so much, he came back to teach and stayed for 37 years. “In science, you talk about form and symmetry,” he says. “There’s certainly a lot of beauty in physics.”

He ought to know. Miller stumbled onto his other passion that had a lot to do with beauty and nothing to do with a science lab. When Miller was young, he found he had a knack for building things. The first thing he built was a cabinet, measuring height, length, width. He was precise. In the 1970s, when the kids were little, he built a windmill that stood 65 feet tall. They got a little electricity from it, but the point was in the building of something useful. He even installed a hinge at the bottom so it could lie flat.

During his time at Xavier, where he served as department chair three times, Miller honed his woodworking skills. One of his creations is a wooden map of the United States on the floor beneath the Foucault Pendulum in the Lindner Physics Building. Miller used an ancient art form called intarsia, carving 133 pieces of 12 different kinds of wood in triangular shapes and varying shades of blonde, red and brown. By the time he built his new brick house four years ago, he’d gotten really good. He finished it on the inside with elegant chair rails, built-in china cabinets, French doors, a fireplace mantel, book shelves and a home-made kitchen table.

Being a man of science, he was surprised when a few years back his woodworking began to stray from function to style. Miller began carving. A man who appreciates the whimsical side of life, Miller’s first creation was a balding man with his hat in his hand. He gave it to his father on his 80th birthday. Since then, he’s broadened his palette to include suggestive sculpture—smooth limestone carvings hinting at elephant shapes, rich wooden depictions of Madonna and child, intertwined dancing figures.

Now his sculptures are too large for the house. They dominate his precisely manicured lawn and are made of cement, blanched white with marble dust. Sister Mobius stands nearly seven feet tall and weighs 500 pounds, emerging stark white from a flower garden in a shape resembling a pear. From a distance, the nun’s habit emerges—small and round on top, plump below. She’s complemented by Sister Mobius’ Harp, which Miller placed in the middle of the circular driveway. Visitors can’t miss either one.

Though religious, both sculptures also reflect his love of physics, for they are literally Mobius strips, so named for the fact they are single ribbons of material that twist once, like a roller coaster. “You always come back to where you start,” Miller says. “It’s a mathematical entity—a three-dimensional object with a single surface.” Like his nearby creation of a comet with a swooshing tail depicting the origins of life, it may be science, but to Miller, it’s really all about art.

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