Published: April 9, 2012

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

The new X-wing provides advanced laboratories that will support JILA's next 50 years of research breakthroughs, and 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 1960s


1962 –  JILA is Created

The Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics was officially launched on April 13, 1962. The public announcement of the new institute was the culmination of nearly five years of work. The innovative partnership between the National Bureau of Standards (NBS, now NIST) and the University of Colorado (CU) Boulder initially focused on laboratory astrophysics research, a combination of atomic physics and astrophysics. The founding JILA chair was Lewis Branscomb, who would later become NBS director and hold many other prestigious positions.


1967 – JILA Gets a Permanent Home

For its first five years JILA was located in old state Armory building, just north of Macky Auditorium on the CU campus. A permanent home was constructed consisting of a new laboratory wing of the CU physics complex and a 10-story office tower. The landmark JILA tower was dedicated on April 7, 1967.


1969 – An Out-of-this-World Experiment

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. The longest-lasting experiment in JILA history is still operating.


The 1970s


1972 – A Record Measurement of the Speed of Light

JILA Fellow John (Jan) Hall and NBS colleague Dick Barger used a methane-stabilized laser to measure the wavelength of light, while Ken Evenson and others at NBS measured the frequency of the light. Multiplying these two results together resulted in a value for the speed of light that not only agreed with previous measurements, but also was 100 times more accurate. The joint JILA/NBS accomplishment was announced in November 1972. The new value for the speed of light was accepted internationally in 1973 and finalized in the 1983 redefinition of the meter, the standard of length. Since then, the meter has been defined internationally in terms of the speed of light.


1975 – Hello to Helioseismology

The field of helioseismology was founded in 1975 by JILA Fellow Juri Toomre, Fellow Adjoint Douglas Gough, and other solar astronomers, who figured out they could use sounds (oscillations) within the Sun to deduce its internal structure and motions. Toomre later combined helioseismology with computer simulations to probe the Sun’s internal structure and studied the turbulent convective layer beneath the Sun’s surface. The Toomre group showed that the convective layer exhibits weather patterns such as strong winds, jets, and tornadoes. This layer interacts with an area of rapid change (the tachocline) to spur the formation of magnetic structures that influence sunspot behavior and other surface phenomena.


1976 – JILA Expands Scope of Research

The JILA Fellows voted to expand the scope of JILA activities, setting the stage for the evolution of JILA physics research in future years. A March 1976 addendum was prepared for the original 1962 Memorandum of Understanding. The addendum, signed by both NBS and CU, emphasized the need for JILA to be dynamic in its focus and programs, responding to changing national needs and to the requirements of its parent organizations. By this time JILA’s scientific mission had expanded to include laser physics, precision measurement, geophysics, the data and measurements necessary to understand reaction mechanisms in the atmosphere, and the collection and evaluation of scientific data.


The 1980s


1988 – JILA’s 25th Anniversary

JILA celebrated its 25th anniversary and the dedication of its new S-wing, which provided a 40 percent increase in physical space, on April 7–9, 1988. The extra space was needed to accommodate more than 200 people at JILA and expected new appointments. The S-Wing featured office and laboratory space and included a suite of basement labs designed for vibration and sound isolation as well as temperature control for precision laser experiments.


1988 – Time Transfer Enters Modern Era

JILA Fellow Judah Levine and NBS colleagues developed the nation’s first automated time scale—a computer-controlled time measurement system—and modernized time transfer with a telephone-based system for which Levine designed the user interface. The Automated Computer Time Service (ACTS) came online in 1988, the same year NBS expanded its focus supporting industry and was renamed the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). Levine then came up with the idea for the NIST Internet Time Service, which synched a computer with ACTS to disseminate time over the Internet. Levine wrote most of the software for this service, introduced in 1993. As of spring 2012, this service responds to 11 billion requests for time each day.


The 1990s


1994 – JILA Drops Longer Name

The JILA Fellows voted in November 1994 to retain the name JILA but discontinue the use of “joint institute for laboratory astrophysics,” which no longer adequately described the scope of science under way. By this time national priorities had shifted to precision measurement, laser science, quantum physics, nanoscience, quantum information processing, and other aspects of atomic, molecular, and optical physics. The name change went into effect in 1995.


1995 – A New State of Matter

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 shares of the 2001 Nobel Prize in Physics and opened up a rich new field of research.  


The 2000s


2000 – Frequency Combs Get Real

JILA Fellows Jan Hall and Steve Cundiff used an ultrafast laser to produce very short, equally spaced pulses of light, creating a “frequency comb” of millions of individual colors (frequencies) like tics on a ruler, allowing researchers to measure visible frequencies more precisely than ever before. By early 2000, Hall and Cundiff had generated an octave-spanning comb and used it to measure frequencies in the microwave and optical regions of the electromagnetic spectrum. The optical frequency comb grew out of Jan Hall’s many years of research on stabilized lasers and helped earn him a share of the 2005 Nobel Prize in Physics. Frequency combs ushered in major advances in precision measurement, such as the development of next-generation atomic clocks operating at optical frequencies.


2003 – A New Type of Condensate

JILA Fellow Deborah Jin and her team, which included future JILA Fellow Cindy Regal, created the first fermionic condensate formed from pairs of potassium atoms in a gas, a step toward potentially unlocking the mysteries of superconductivity and superfluidity under extreme ultracold conditions. While similar in some ways to the Bose-Einstein condensate created at JILA in 1995, the fermionic condensate used a different class of atoms—fermions—which are by definition loners. Thus, even the concept of pairing fermions seemed to defy logic, making the experiment particularly challenging.  


The 2010s


2010 – JILA + Ultracold Molecules = Ultracold Chemistry

When the W. M. Keck Foundation donated $1.5 million in 2003 for JILA research on cold molecules, there were no ultracold molecules anywhere in the universe. JILA Fellows Jun Ye and Deborah Jin created ultracold molecules as well as the field of ultracold chemistry. First they made ultracold potassium-rubidium molecules in their lowest energy state, and then they brought the molecules into their lowest nuclear-spin state. By 2010 the team demonstrated the first controlled chemical reactions of ultracold molecules. The work will help scientists understand previously unknown aspects of how molecules interact and may provide practical tools for “designer chemistry.”


2010-2011 – Tabletop X-ray Laser

JILA Fellows Henry Kapteyn and Margaret Murnane built on their years of experience with ultrafast lasers to create a tabletop X-ray laser. By focusing an ultrafast laser into a gas, they generated many colors of X-rays at once, from the extreme ultraviolet into the soft X-ray region of the electromagnetic spectrum. Added together, these colors formed the shortest strobe light in existence, its light lasting only 10 attoseconds (10 quintillionths of a second). The new ultrafast X-ray laser can probe the “water window” of the spectrum where biological molecules rich in carbon, hydrogen, and nitrogen can be clearly imaged. Because X-rays have much shorter wavelengths and much higher energies than visible light, it will be possible for researchers to image incredibly tiny structures at much higher resolution than ever before.