Boulder’s JILA celebrates 50 years on cutting edge of physics

In 1962, on the University of Colorado’s Boulder campus, a lab was formed that has since grown to become one of the world’s most prominent and well-respected programs in atomic, molecular and optical physics.

That institute — a collaboration between the National Institute of Standards and Technology and CU — is now known simply as JILA, though, at its founding, it was called the Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics.

This week, JILA is celebrating its 50th birthday with a series of public lectures, an open house, a reception and the dedication of JILA by the American Physical Society as one of the country’s historic physics sites.

Over its half-century of existence, JILA has made big waves in the physics world by studying the incredibly small. The institute — which tied with MIT in the latest U.S. News and World Report ranking for the no. 1 graduate program in atomic, molecular and optical physics — has produced three Nobel Prize winners, all since 2001, and continues to attract some of the discipline’s brightest minds.

Today, JILA is home to almost 100 scientists and support staff, more than 50 postdoctoral researchers and more than 100 graduate students. Discoveries made at JILA also have been spun off into 11 companies now operating in Colorado.

JILA’s lure for top-notch physicists appears to be based, at least in part, on a culture that nurtures collaboration, a steady stream of ambitious and creative graduate students and postdoctoral researchers, and the ability to tap resources from both NIST and CU.

“We try and preserve, as best we can, a sort of scientific culture where people can get a lot done and work with each other really easily,” said JILA Chair Eric Cornell, who shared a Nobel Prize with JILA colleague Carl Wieman in 2001. “… The federal agency brings resources and helps us stay focused on the mission. The fact that it’s a university campus means that we get access to these very young, energetic graduate students and post-docs. … They don’t know what’s impossible yet. They’re full of zip.”

Margaret Murnane, who was appointed earlier this year to chair the President’s Committee on the National Medal of Science, said the fact that JILA employees have access to instrument shops, where they can build the tools they need for cutting-edge research, is also a draw, as is the fact that JILA is in Boulder.

“Even if you have the best idea in the world, if you can’t make it and refine it, you can’t be sure it works,” she said.

Ultrafast lasers and frequency combs

The areas of physics where JILA scientists have made some of the greatest breakthroughs include the creation of ultrafast lasers, ultracold molecules, optical frequency combs and better atomic clocks.

Murnane and her husband and research partner Henry Kapteyn began working on ultrafast lasers in the 1990s before they came to JILA. The lasers — which really produce short bursts of light with extremely short wavelengths — are critical tools for scientists who want to measure, and peer into, the tiniest units of the universe.

“A general-use microscope can only see as small as the wavelength that illuminates it,” said Murnane, who likens ultrafast lasers to the “ultimate strobe light.” “You can’t see small things if you don’t have short wavelengths.”

The original ultrafast lasers built by Murnane and Kapteyn are now widely used, and, now, the pair is working on ultrafast lasers that use X-rays, which have shorter wavelengths than light that can be seen with the eye.

“To understand how molecules work, how chemical reactions work, we need fast bursts of X-rays, as it turns out,” Murnane said.

But ultrafast lasers in the visible spectrum have gone on to lay the foundation for another research thrust at JILA: the frequency comb. This is the area of research for which JILA scientist John Hall won the Nobel Prize in 2005.

The development of optical frequency combs — which are composed of slightly different colors of laser light that are equally spaced — allowed researchers to more accurately measure the frequency of light.

While visible light is on the same electromagnetic spectrum as radio waves, light waves have proven much more difficult to measure than radio waves.

“Knowing the frequency of a radio wave doesn’t seem that amazing,” said JILA researcher Steven Cundiff.

Radio waves are large, especially in comparison to the instruments used to measure them. But the frequencies of light waves are orders of magnitude smaller, and therefore, required a new way of thinking and a new instrument for measuring.

Frequency combs presented a solution. The devices not only allowed researchers to more accurately measure light frequencies but it also helped them connect those measurements back to the more well-known radio frequencies.

“The comb allows you to connect the two,” Cundiff said.

Optical frequency combs are now so precise that the combs may be able to be used in the future to help create an even more accurate atomic clock. The ability to better measure frequencies could also help scientists determine if things that researchers now believe are constants — the frequency that an atom resonates at, for example — actually are not constants after all, Cundiff said.

Ultracold molecules

JILA also is well known as a center of research on ultracold molecules.

Physicists know that that, on a very, very tiny scale, the world acts differently, generally speaking, than it does on a larger scale. in the world of the very small, subatomic particles, quantum mechanics — which holds that these tiny particles can behave as waves — can explain how particles interact. But it’s difficult to view those interactions on such a small scale. However, scientists also know that larger particles tend to act more like smaller particles when they are extremely cold.

Cornell and Wieman won their Nobel Prize for figuring out a way to cool atoms down to a temperature just above absolute zero to create something known as a Bose-Einstein condensate, essentially a new state of matter.

“That made it much easier for us and for other people around the world to study quantum mechanics,” Cornell said.

While the type of extreme cooling pioneered by Wieman and Cornell is now somewhat routine, Cornell is still working on taking the process to the next level. The original Bose-Einstein condensate acted more like a gas than other common states of matter.

“I’ve been trying to make a Bose-Einstein condensate that’s more like a liquid,” Cornell said.

At the beginning of JILA’s next half century, Cornell and other physicists working at the institute will have the opportunity to push their disciplines forward in shiny new labs.

Earlier this year, JILA opened its new X-wing, featuring 56,065 square feet of new laboratory space.

“We try as hard as we can to have really state-of-the-art facilities,” Cornell said.

Contact Camera Staff Writer Laura Snider at 303-473-1327 or

Boulder’s JILA celebrates 50 years on cutting edge of physics

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