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Professor R.J. Dwayne Miller receives prestigious ACS-Award

R. J. Dwayne Miller will be awarded the 2015 E. Bright Wilson Award for Spectroscopy from the American Chemical Society “for the development of femtosecond electron diffraction and coherent spectroscopic methods for the direct observation and control of chemical dynamics at the atomic level.” His work has created a new field in which all researchers can aspire to directly observe atomic motions during the defining moments of chemistry


Prof. R. J. Dwayne Miller. Credit: UHH, RRZ/MCC, Arvid Mentz

Professor R. J. Dwayne Miller, speaker of CUI and director at the Max Planck Institute for the Structure and Dynamics of Matter, Hamburg, will be honored with the 2015 E. Bright Wilson Award in Spectroscopy of the American Chemical Society (ACS). The ACS is the world’s largest scientific society with more than 161,000 members. Chartered by the U.S. Congress, the nonprofit organization is a global leader in providing access to chemistry-related research. The E. Bright Wilson Award in Spectroscopy is awarded annually, to recognize outstanding accomplishments in fundamental or applied spectroscopy in chemistry.

“Given the history of the E. Bright Award and the accomplishments of those who have come before me, it is as humbling as it is energizing to receive this award”, says Miller who has a secondary appointment as Professor of Chemistry and Physics at the University of Toronto. “This award also helps bring recognition to the importance of basic science as the honored  work has led to a number of innovations that could well change both how we think about chemistry and how we apply chemical principles.”

New concepts in laser surgery

Miller’s first atomic movie of melting, the moment a solid collapses to liquid form, for example led to new concepts in laser surgery that are so precise and gentle there is no scar tissue formation.  His team is now collaborating with over 50 surgeons in Hamburg and Toronto to bring this new concept into practice that could solve the long standing problem of scar tissue in fully recovery of function (and aesthetics).  “This connection is important to make so the general public can see how new understandings can benefit us all.  I am strongly committed to making science accessible to the general public and founded Science Rendezvous ( for this purpose. It is a fantastic chance to show how science works and the dreams scientists have to improve the human conditions – to sow the seeds for the next generation of scientists.  The E. Bright Wilson Award helps punctuate the importance of this mission”, Miller says.

The award will be given for the achievement of one of the long standing dream experiments in science to make a molecular movie, i.e. to directly observe atomic motions during the defining moments that lead to structural change – to directly observe the very essence of chemistry and driving force for biology. Millers’ pioneering work in the development of femtosecond electron diffraction sources and coherent spectroscopic methods made this dream come true. Back in 2003 his observation of simple phase transitions at the atomic level on the 100 femtosecond time scale, were very grainy much like the first motion pictures (Science cover story 2003).

Astonishing findings: reduction in complexity

Roughly a decade later, Millers ‘ultrabright’ table top electron sources led to new movies that beautifully show clear atomic motions. Even more astonishing was the finding behind the movie: Miller and colleagues realized that no matter how complex molecules are, the interconversion in structure is reduced to only a few key motions. For a problem with over 280 atoms and their related motions, Miller and his colleagues were able to map all the relevant atomic motions on to just three key modes (Nature 2013).  This is a direct observation of the “magic of Chemistry”:  At the defining moment of chemistry or jump from one structure to another, the motions reduce to those with the biggest effect on stabilizing the new structure.  It is the reduction in dimensionality or complexity at this critical point, the point of no return,that makes chemical concepts transferrable.

Miller’s work on atomically resolving structural dynamics, aka making molecular movies, has created a new field in which all researchers worldwide can aspire to see chemistry in action.  And which could very well change the way we think about chemistry.

The E. Bright Wilson Award in Spectroscopy will be given at an awards ceremony on Tuesday, March 24, 2015, in conjunction with the 249th ACS national meeting in Denver, where Miller will give his award address. The award consists of $5,000 and a certificate.