Renowned CU-Boulder/NIST institute celebrates 50 years of scientific advances; named an ‘historic physics site’


Several hundred people are expected to gather on the University of Colorado Boulder campus July 12-13 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of JILA, a joint institute of CU-Boulder and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) known around the world for its discoveries in atomic, molecular and optical physics. In addition, the president-elect of the American Physical Society will be on hand to officially announce JILA’s designation as an historic physics site.

Over the past half century, scientists at JILA came up with the idea to place a reflector on the moon to help measure its distance from the Earth; made precision laser measurements that led to a more accurate value for the speed of light and redefinition of the meter; and created a new form of matter, the first ultracold molecules and the first tabletop X-ray laser. Since 2001, three JILA fellows have received the Nobel Prize in physics.

Among the renowned scientists expected to attend the anniversary celebration are JILA fellows and Nobel laureates Eric Cornell, John (Jan) Hall and Carl Wieman; founding JILA chair Lewis Branscomb, former director of the National Bureau of Standards (now NIST) and chief scientist at IBM; and Neal Lane, former CU-Colorado Springs chancellor, presidential science adviser and director of the National Science Foundation.

“It’s been a wonderful half-century, and we eagerly anticipate what the next 50 years will bring,” said Cornell, the current JILA chair.

As part of the celebration, public lectures on JILA history and science are scheduled for June 12 in Old Main Chapel. Topics will include personal recollections of a woman who was a prominent early American physicist, presented by Katharine Gebbie, who was herself JILA’s first female fellow and is now director of NIST’s Physical Measurement Laboratory (which includes the NIST part of JILA).

A formal ceremony, including the presentation of the American Physical Society’s plaque recognizing JILA’s historic status, will be held Friday, June 13, at 1:30 p.m., on Farrand Field.

The full schedule for the July 12-13 events is available online at

The partnership between CU-Boulder and NIST was officially launched on April 13, 1962. Many of the policies governing JILA’s innovative structure that were developed in 1962 remain in place to this day because they so successfully encouraged collaboration and scientific innovation.

In the latest U.S. News and World Report rankings, JILA and the CU-Boulder physics department are tied with MIT as the nation’s No. 1 graduate program in atomic, molecular and optical physics.

JILA scientists and discoveries have generated 11 companies currently operating in Colorado, including a Boulder firm developing ultracold matter technology centered on Bose-Einstein condensate.

All JILA graduate students, like the 27 JILA Fellows, are also affiliated with a CU-Boulder academic discipline such as physics; astrophysical and planetary sciences; chemistry and biochemistry; molecular, cellular and developmental biology; or engineering.

JILA (originally called the Joint Laboratory for Astrophysics but now known by the acronym only) was first housed in the Armory building on campus. In 1967 JILA moved into its first permanent home, a new laboratory wing of the CU-Boulder physics complex and a 10-story office tower. JILA recently added 56,065 gross square feet of new laboratory and office space in its X-wing, dedicated in April.

JILA’s last expansion opened during the 25th anniversary year in 1987. With the new X-wing, JILA now totals 162,959 gross square feet.

For a history of significant JILA discoveries and milestones, videos and a list of JILA-generated companies operating in Colorado visit For more information about JILA and the public events to be held during the 50th anniversary celebration visit



--JILA was founded as a joint institute between the University of Colorado Boulder and the National Institute of Standards and Technology on April 13, 1962 and will celebrate its 50th anniversary on July 12-13 of this year. It is located on the CU-Boulder campus.

--JILA scientists are a mix of CU faculty and NIST federal employees who work together for the mission of JILA and for education. One example is the highly successful partnership of CU faculty member Carl Wieman and NIST scientist and CU adjoint professor Eric Cornell to create the world’s first Bose Einstein condensate, for which they were awarded the Nobel Prize in 2001.

--JILA scientists develop new research and measurement tools that substantially advance science, technology and the economy. For example, development of the laser frequency comb in the late 1990s has led to an ever-expanding array of applications in atomic clocks, astronomy, biomedicine and many other areas. John (Jan) Hall of JILA and NIST, and an adjoint professor of physics at CU, shared the 2005 Nobel Prize for pioneering this unique new tool.

--JILA research spins off into new companies, technologies and jobs, including 11 companies currently operating along Colorado’s Front Range.

--JILA, along with the CU-Boulder physics department, is tied with MIT as the nation’s No. 1 graduate programs in atomic, molecular, and optical physics according to the latest U.S. News and World Report rankings. JILA trains graduate students each year who go on to work in industry, government labs and universities.

--The new X-wing provides advanced laboratories that will support JILA’s next 50 years of research breakthroughs, and collaboration space to further encourage training and interdisciplinary research. Like JILA overall, the X-wing is a collaboration between CU and NIST, with each organization sharing in the costs of the $32.7 million building.

--The chair of JILA alternates every two years between a NIST scientist and a CU-Boulder scientist. 

Malinda Miller-Huey, CU media relations, 303-492-3115
Laura Ost, NIST media relations, 303-497-4880

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