William Duncan MacMillan

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William Duncan MacMillan
Born(1871-07-24)24 July 1871
La Crosse, Wisconsin, USA
DiedNovember 1948 (1948-12) (aged 77)
Scientific career
FieldsAstronomy, mathematics and physics

William Duncan MacMillan (July 24, 1871 – November 1948) was an American mathematician and astronomer.

He was born in La Crosse, Wisconsin to D. D. MacMillan, who was in the lumber business, and Mary Jane MacCrea. He had a sister and two brothers; the last would later becoming managers of Cargill Elevator company of Minneapolis.[clarification needed][citation needed]

William graduated from La Crosse High School in 1888. In 1889 he attended Lake Forest College, then entered the University of Virginia. Later in 1898 he earned an A.B. degree from Fort Worth University. He performed his graduate work at the University of Chicago, earning a M.A. in 1906 and a Ph.D. in 1908.

In 1907, prior to completing his Ph.D., he joined the staff of the University of Chicago as a research assistant in geology. In 1908 he became an associate in mathematics, then in 1909 he began instruction in astronomy at the same institution. His career as a professor began in 1912 when he became an assistant professor. In 1917 the U.S. declared war on Germany, and Dr. MacMillan served as a major in the U.S. army's ordnance department during World War I. Following the war he became associate professor in 1919, then full professor in 1924.

He made noted contributions in mathematics and astronomy. He was an early proponent of a theory in the context of solving Olbers's paradox (1922) that would later be called the "tired-light hypothesis" of cosmology.

In an Associated Press report Dr. MacMillan speculated on the nature of interstellar civilizations, believing that they would be vastly more advanced than our own. "Out in the heavens, perhaps, are civilizations as far above ours as we are above the single cell, since they are so much older than ours."[citation needed]

The crater MacMillan on the Moon is named in his honor.


  • "Velocities of the Spiral Nebulae", Nature, 129, 93.
  • "On Stellar Evolution", Astrophysical Journal, 48, 1918.
  • "Some Mathematical Aspects of Cosmology", Science, 62, 1925.
  • "Theory of the Potential", Astrophysical Journal, 72, 1930.
  • "Postulates of Normal Intuition", 1927.
  • "The fourth doctrine of science and its limitations", 1927.
  • "Statics and the dynamics of a particle", New York, McGraw-Hill, 1927. Later reprinted by Dover, 1958, ISBN 1-124-11132-8.
  • "Dynamics of Rigid Bodies", circa 1936. Later reprinted by Dover, 1960.

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