Celebrating 60 Years of JILA

Submitted by kennac on Tue, 07/12/2022 - 12:10 pm

This year, JILA celebrates its 60th anniversary. Officially established on April 13, 1962, as a joint institution between the University of Colorado Boulder and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), JILA has become a world leader in physics research. Its rich history includes three Nobel laureates, groundbreaking work in laser development, atomic clocks, underlying dedication to precision measurement, and even competitive sports leagues. The process of creating this science goliath was not always straightforward and took the dedication and hard work of many individuals.

The idea for JILA came from a 1958 meeting of the International Astronomical Union in Moscow. Dr. Lewis Branscombe, a founding member and the head of the atomic physics department of the National Bureau of Standards (NBS, which would later become NIST) proposed an institution for laboratory astrophysics to co-founder, and professor of astrophysics at CU Boulder, Dr. Richard Thomas. As Branscombe was directly funded by the government, and Thomas by the university, they realized that the best option for such an institution would be a joint establishment between the two entities.  Together with the third founding member, Dr. Michael Seaton, a theorist at University College London, they toured nine universities in 1960 and 1961 to find a suitable home for the institution. Finally, the trio settled on CU Boulder as the location for their new institution. This was in part due to the President of the university at the time, Quigg Newton, who was supportive of their cause.

In April of 1962, JILA was founded, standing for the Joint Institute of Laboratory Astrophysics. Laboratory astrophysics was of particular interest to the International Astronomical Union as it focused on topics ranging from studying the Sun’s visible light spectrum to developing retroreflecting mirrors.

Trying to find a building on the campus to house JILA, CU Boulder's Chief Financial Officer Leo Hill worked with both the NBS and National Science Foundation to pay rent for two floors of the old State Armory building. The NBS also provided funds for laboratory equipment. JILA began construction for its own building shortly after, with the first part, the B-wing, completed in 1966, and the JILA tower finished in 1967. JILA added two more wings to its building, the S-wing (dedicated in 1988), and the X-wing in 2011. There are plans for further expansion with a Y-wing to be built, but nothing is currently in process.

Setting up in the Old Armory building, the JILA scientists (by the early 1960s there were seven scientists at JILA) established several rules that would help JILA function properly. These rules centered around leadership, funding, and fellowships. It was negotiated that with JILA's creation, the NBS would provide instruments and laboratories, while CU Boulder would provide researchers and land for the institution. With its unique agreements and roles, JILA’s institute was relatively free to make its own way scientifically. In 1961, CU Boulder's Board of Regents approved the title of professor adjoint for any NBS faculty who taught classes at the University. This further solidified the connection between the university and the NBS and made it easier for JILA to attract new scientists.

One of these scientists was Dr. John “Jan” Hall, who was an expert in laser systems and who had previously worked at the NBS location in Washington DC. Though JILA was created during the height of the space race, with the idea being to help the U.S. win this race, Hall helped move JILA in a new direction with laser development. JILA still had ties to astrophysics and astronomy, such as developing lunar lasers for the space race, but the times were changing, and JILA was shifting its research focus to other topics.

By the late 1960s into the 1970s, JILA's fields were expanding to include laser physics, atomic physics, and others. Hall, at the helm of this shift, helped develop the first high-precision lasers at JILA. His work on these systems would later garner him a Nobel Prize in Physics in 2005.

The 1970s brought a deeper sense of community within JILA, as it was described as a “fun, fast, and free-spirited place.” It was during this time that, along with rafting or ski trips, JILAns also created their own sports leagues, including softball and volleyball. In 1974, JILA elected its first female chair, Katharine Gebbie. Gebbie would later move over to NIST and become their Chief of Quantum Physics Division in 1988, but before she did, she helped recruit and support other female JILA Fellows in JILA.  The fields of study within the institution also diversified, as in 1977, the NBS changed the name of their JILA division to the “Quantum Physics Division,” predicting the role that quantum physics would play in JILA'S future.

In the 1980s, JILA was beginning to modernize with the help of the early internet. Thanks to JILA fellow Judah Levine and colleagues the Automated Computer Time Service was brought online, accessible through dial-up modems. This was a monumental first step in modernizing time transfer, as users had access to atomic clock time. By 1988, JILA’s population consisted of more than 200 people, including 23 Fellows. It was also the year that the National Bureau of Standards (NBS)became the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), changing its infrastructure and goals.

More breakthroughs occurred in the 1990s, as JILA once more shifted its mission to reflect NIST's mandate for developing precision measurement, and educating graduate students in future technology. In 1994, JILA had become more than its previous name implied, and dropped the definition of its acronym as the Joint Institute of Laboratory Astrophysics in acknowledgement of the broader scope of science conducted there. In 1995, Nobel-prize winning research was performed by JILA Fellows Carl Weiman and Eric Cornell, as they discovered the Bose-Einstein-Condensate (BEC), a special state of matter helpful for studying quantum dynamics. Nineteen ninety-six brought the 500th Fellows’ meeting, as well as diversity initiatives to make the community more inclusive.

The 1990s was also an important decade for laser physics at JILA. By 1997, JILA identified seven fields of physics that researchers were studying: atomic physics, chemical physics, materials physics, optical physics, molecular physics, precision measurement, and astrophysics. Laser physics was an underlying study in many of these fields. In 1999, JILA Fellows Margaret Murnane and her husband Henry Kapteyn created what was then the fastest tabletop laser system. That same year, Fellows Jan Hall and Jun Ye developed the first optical frequency comb laser, a tool used by researchers to study optical physics. With these important developments, JILA was quickly establishing a reputation as a world leader in physics research. This reputation boosted JILA's success, as, by the late 1990s, the institution was producing 5–10% of the nation's new Ph.D. graduates in atomic, molecular, and optical (AMO) physics.

The success continued into the 2000s, as the decade brought three Nobel Prizes to JILA. In 2001, Eric Cornell and Carl Weiman were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for their work in 1995 on the BEC. The State of Colorado established March 6th as “Carl Weinman and Eric Cornell day” to honor the scientists. A few years later in 2005, Jan Hall also received the Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on laser systems and for developing the first optical frequency comb. JILA also added biophysics as a new field of study, which was helped by the addition of JILA Fellow Thomas Perkins, who worked in this area.

Three JILA Fellows were honored during the 2010s by being selected by then-President Obama to fill important leadership positions within scientific governing groups, including the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. These Fellows included Carl Weinman, Margaret Murnane, and Carl Lineberger. JILA also celebrated its 50th birthday on April 13th, 2012.

Since then, JILA Fellows have received many prestigious scientific awards and grants. The decades of graduate students and postdoctoral researchers who have worked at the institution have gone on to lead successful careers and scientific efforts for other institutions around the world. JILA has also helped spawn many spin-off companies, including 12 companies based in Colorado. These companies range in their products and technology and include companies such as ColdQuanta, Hall Stable Lasers, High Precision Devices, KM Labs, Vescent, to name a few.

With 60 years of scientific research and groundbreaking discoveries, and many successful scientific careers launched, hundreds of lives impacted, it is no surprise that JILA continues to be a global leader in physics research and a pillar within the scientific community. As JILA celebrates its 60th anniversary this year, we look not only to past accomplishments but also to the future, excited to be carrying on such a rich and fulfilling legacy. 

Written by Kenna Castleberry, JILA Science Communicator