Published: June 1, 2012 By

JILA extension

JILA, new addition on left and original tower on right, and the physics department tied with Massachusetts Institute of Technology as the nation’s top graduate program in atomic, molecular and optical physics, according to U.S. News & World Report rankings. Photo by Casey A. Cass.

The factory for Nobel Prize winners on campus grew by 56,000 square feet in spring.

The prominent JILA tower, which houses a joint institute between CU-Boulder and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, has been home to three Nobel Prize winners since 2001 ― Eric Cornell, Carl Wieman and Jan Hall. But the new space will ensure JILA’s ability to train the nation’s future leaders in the physical sciences.

Inside the new six-story wing made of sandstone and glass, scientists seek to understand some of today’s most challenging and fundamental questions about quantum physics, the design of precision optical and X-ray lasers, the interaction of light and matter and processes that have governed the evolution of the universe for nearly 14 billion years.

During the past two decades, their discoveries have spilled out of the towering building, transforming into many spinoff companies, including 11 along Colorado’s Front Range. Professors Margaret Murnane and Henry Kapteyn started KM Labs to produce the fastest laser in the world. Chris Myatt (PhDPhys’97) founded MBio Diagnostics to deliver technology for rapid, accurate patient diagnoses from a single drop of blood.

Celebrating its 50th anniversary this summer, JILA opened in 1962 as an innovative partnership between CU-Boulder and National Bureau of Standards [now the National Institute of Standards and Technology [NIST] in the Armory building north of Macky Auditorium. It initially focused on laboratory astrophysics research, a combination of atomic physics and astrophysics.

It didn’t take long for it to establish itself as a world-renowned institute. In 1969 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin left a retroreflector package on the Moon on July 21, 1969, to help measure the distance between the Earth and the Moon. JILA fellow James Faller came up with the original idea for this experiment. The 18-inch-square array consisted of 100 fused silica “corner cubes,” similar to the reflectors on bicycles, to reflect a beam of light coming from the Earth back to its source. Scientists have used this technique to measure the Earth–Moon distance, test the theory of general relativity and verify that the Moon has a fluid core and is moving away from the Earth.

JILA Fellows Eric Cornell and Carl Wieman and collaborators made the world’s first Bose-Einstein condensate (BEC), an entirely new form of matter, in 1995. Predicted many years earlier by physicists Satyendra Nath Bose and Albert Einstein, the BEC appeared when a cloud of rubidium atoms was cooled to a few hundred billionths of a degree above absolute zero, causing the atoms to fall into the same low energy state, forming a “superatom.” This accomplishment earned Wieman and Cornell the 2001 Nobel Prize in Physics.

A stretch of U.S. Highway 36 that runs between Boulder and Denver has been renamed “Buffalo Highway.” The Colorado legislature approved the bill to rename that section of highway this spring after very little wrangling.