Douglas L. Mills

With the death of Douglas Leon Mills in Southern California on March 29, 2012, the world of condensed matter physics and the University of California, Irvine, lost a major figure and a dear colleague.  He died after a long battle with leukemia.

Doug was born in Berkeley, California on April 2, 1940.  He was the first member of his family to go to college.  He received the B.S. degree in Engineering Physics in 1961 and the Ph.D. degree in Physics in 1965, both from the University of California, Berkeley.  His Ph.D. thesis advisor was Charles Kittel, and the subject of his thesis was the properties of ultrasonic waves in insulating crystals.

After receiving the Ph.D. degree Doug spent a year as an NSF Postdoctoral Fellow at the Universite Paris-Sud, in Orsay, France, in the group of Jacques Friedel.  It was there that he carried out his first investigations into magnetic properties of solids, a subject that occupied him throughout his entire professional career.

On his return to the U.S. from France in 1966, Doug joined the Department of Physics at the University of California, Irvine as an assistant professor and as one of its earliest faculty members.  It was to be his academic home for the rest of his life.  He became associate professor in 1969, and professor in 1973.

In his research, Doug made seminal contributions to several areas of condensed matter physics, namely to phonon physics, inelastic light scattering, low energy electron diffraction, infrared absorption, surface excitations, electronic transport properties, and magnetic properties of solids.  The majority of this work was done in the context of surface physics. He was an early contributor to the modern theory of surface electromagnetic waves that began in the late 1960's, which laid the theoretical foundations of the contemporary field of plasmonics.

Particularly significant was his series of papers devoted to surface waves on magnetic media of several types: ferromagnets, antiferromagnets, and magnetoelastic media.  A major interest of his was the scattering of light and of low energy electrons from crystal surfaces as a means of studying surface excitations.  He produced the first theories of the Raman scattering of light from surface phonon polaritons on semiconductors, from metal surfaces, and from surface spin waves on opaque ferromagnets, as well as of infrared absorption by binary metallic alloys and by multiphonon processes in alkali-halide crystals.

His theoretical work on the use of low energy electron diffraction from solid surfaces helped make it into a valuable tool for the experimental study of surface phonons, and led to his writing a book together with Harald Ibach, Electron Energy Loss Spectroscopy and Surface Vibrations (Academic Press, 1982), that is a standard reference to the subject.  Gap solutions were discovered in work Doug did with W. Chen and S.E. Trullinger.

His papers on the scattering of spin-polarized electrons from magnetic surfaces predicted and explained data obtained in such experiments and remain the benchmarks for such calculations to this day.

Much of Doug’s work in the last decade dealt with the magnetic properties of multilayer structures and ultrathin magneticfilms, subjects that Doug began to study before practical uses for them had been found. It is a characteristic of his work that because of his interest in the basic properties of the systems he studied he made significant predictions often years before experimental techniques were developed to the point where these predictions could be verified, as they almost invariably were.

Doug was a prolific scholar, who published approximately 400 scientific articles during his career.  Even after formal retirement in 2010 he continued his research activities, working with students and postdocs almost until the end.

Although a pen and paper theorist, he collaborated extremely well with experimental and computational groups around the world.

Among his academic honors, Doug was an Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Fellow (1968-1970), a Fellow of the American Physical Society, a recipient of a Senior U.S. Scientist Award from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation of Germany (1990), a Yamada Foundation Lecturer in Japan (1984), and a Masse Honor Lecturer of the Kansas State University (1994).  The Alumni Association of the University of California, Irvine, honored him with the Distinguished Faculty Research Award in 1984.

Doug supervised the Ph.D. thesis research of approximately 25 students.  Many of them went on to become senior figures in the condensed matter theory community.  He also mentored a like number of postdoctoral students, many of whom are also now well known scholars.

Doug was also an excellent classroom teacher, at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.  As a consequence of teaching a new graduate course on nonlinear optics, he wrote a well-known book, Nonlinear Optics: Basic Concepts (Springer, 1991).  He received the Department of Physics and Astronomy Outstanding Teacher Award in 1985, and the School of Physical Sciences Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching in 1995.

His passion for teaching and inspiring students was not confined to UCI.  His principal non-academic diversion was sailing.  He competed many times in the annual Newport Beach Ensenada yacht race, and was commodore of the Bahia Corinthian Yacht Club in Newport Beach.  He supported the “students” of sailing by founding the Bahia Sail Racing Association, which supports the next generation of amateur sailors, one of whom has just qualified for the upcoming Olympic Games.

Doug served the condensed matter physics community by membership on the organizing committees of several magnetism conferences.  In addition, he was a member of the editorial board of the journal Physics Reports, was an editor of Comments on Condensed Matter Physics (Gordon and Breach), and an editor of the book series Contemporary Concepts of Condensed Matter Science (Elsevier).

Doug served the Department of Physics and Astronomy in several ways.  He was Chair of the Department from 1983 to 1986, and over the years helped to recruit many of its current members.  He always had time to chat, to give advice and encouragement, or relate some of his experiences.  His service to UC Irvine, however, extended beyond his department.  He was the Director of the Institute for Surface and Interface Science, a multi-departmental research center, from 1996 to 2001.  He served on, and chaired, many academic senate committees.  In this service he was a staunch, and vocal, defender of high academic standards.

Doug was a great storyteller and had an excellent collection of them.  He had a number of collaborators in Chile, Brazil, Germany, and other countries, which he enjoyed visiting.  He was also a very enthusiastic man who was always ready to share an opinion on any subject, whether it concerned South-American music, an article in New York Times, or the latest work on the skyrmion lattices on a surface of a magnet.  He was a very generous person, especially to younger colleagues, with his time, ideas, and constant encouragement.  He was fighting his illness with amazing courage, approaching it as a problem than needed more and more intricate solution.  He was a great optimist until the very end.

Distinguished scholar, outstanding teacher, a most congenial colleague, and a warm human being, Doug Mills is mourned by the condensed matter community, and will be greatly missed by all who knew him.

Doug is survived by his wife, Sandy, his children, Sherylle and Scott, and three grandchildren, Cage, Jack and Megan.

If you wish to send a personal message to the family, you can address it in care of the School of Physical Sciences Dean’s Office.

In addition to his passion for teaching physics, Doug had a similar passion for teaching sailing. He founded the Bahia Sail Racing Association. The association trains future amateur sailors, with one just qualified for the next Olympic Competition.

The School of Physical Sciences hosted a remembrance on Friday, April 6, to toast Doug’s life and his contributions to UCI. Doug’s family held a celebration of his life at the Bahia Corinthian Yacht Club on July 1, 2012. 

Gifts may be made online in memory of any individual at http://www.uadv.uci.edu/PhysicalSciencesMemorialFund, or by mailing the School's pledge form.