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NIST History Lecture Series

December 2, 2005, the Standards Alumni Association joined NIST in presenting the first in a series of annual Historical Lectures. The aim of the series is to call attention to important events in the history of NBS/NIST. The lectures have become part of the NIST Friday-morning colloquium program that is administered by Dr. William Ott, Deputy Director of NIST's Physics Laboratory.

"Nobel Laureate TD Lee Launches a New SAA/NIST Lecture Series". The series was launched with a lecture by Nobel Laureate Tsung Dao Lee, Professor of physics at Columbia University. Prof. Lee's talk was entitled "New Insights Into Old Problems". It was based on a revolutionary experiment performed by a team of physicists at NBS, with the collaboration of Lee, his fellow theoretician Chen Ning Yang of the Princeton University Institute for Advanced Study, and another young scientist, Dr. Chien-Shiung Wu, a beta-decay expert working at Columbia University. The NBS group included Ernest Ambler and Ralph P. Hudson of the Cryogenic Physics Section, and Raymond W. Hayward, and Dale D. Hoppes of the Atomic and Radiation Physics division. The experiment provided clear evidence that parity is not conserved in weak nuclear interactions, verifying a theory put forth by Lee and Yang. The low-temperature laboratory at NBS was one of the few places in which the difficult experiment could have been performed. The success of the theory earned the two physicists the 1957 Nobel Prize in physics.

The second Historical Lecture was given on January 5, 2007, by J. William Gadzuk, a NIST Scientist Emeritus. The title of Gadzuk's talk was "Tunneling Microscopy and the NBS Topografiner: 20 Years After the Nobel Prize". The talk described an outstanding series of experiments by Russell D. Young, Frederic E. Scire, and John F. Ward that culminated in the development of a device that they called the topografiner. Invented in 1972, the topografiner was the forerunner of the scanning tunneling microscope, which was the subject of a Nobel Prize that was awarded 14 years later to two Swiss physicists, Gerhard Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer.The NBS team's efforts to further develop the topografiner were frustrated by an administrative blunder that prevented them from continuing their studies. Gadzuk described Young's experiments and the following situation with great tact and a perspective that came from close personal contact between Young and Gadzuk over the course of many years.

On December 14, 2007, the third Historical Lecture was given by Lewis M. Branscomb, the 6th Director of NBS/NIST. It was quite suitable that Branscomb presented his talk to the NIST staff in Boulder, Colorado, inasmuch as the topic was the creation of the Boulder NBS laboratories and the Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics, also located in Boulder. The talk, entitled "NBS Moves West", was carried by television to a second audience in NIST's Gaithersburg site.The Boulder site was created in 1950 to accommodate the needs of the NBS Central Radio Propagation Laboratory for facilities with less interference than the electronically busy area in Washington, DC. A corresponding need was felt for an enlarged cryogenic engineering program, which actually was initiated before the CRPL facility was completed. In 1962, the NBS administration completed an agreement with the University of Colorado to establish a Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics, to be built on the campus of the university. The initiative for the institute was almost entirely provided by Branscomb and his colleague Richard N. Thomas, working with NBS Director Allen Astin. The Boulder NBS site and JILA have been sources of outstanding research from the time of their creation.

The fourth Historical Lecture was given on December 5, 2008 by Clifton M. Carey, Director of the Independent Research and Grant Administration, the American Dental Association's Paffenbarger Research Center at NIST. Collaboration between the ADA and NBS/NIST began in 1928 and has continued without interruption since. Carey described many of the advances in dental science that have come about through the participation of the multitude of dental researchers who are supported by the ADA but work in the scientific environment offered by "the Bureau". These include the high-speed dental drill, panoramic dental x-rays, and many innovations in dental materials. It is fair to say that the collaboration between the ADA and NBS/NIST has revolutionized dental care over many years, and it continues to do so today.

Richard G. Gann presented the fifth Historical Lecture on December 4, 2009. Gann, former chief of the NIST Fire Science division, described the growth in understanding of the nature of urban fires and the increasing sophistication of the NBS/NIST program in its efforts to minimize the probability of destructive fires and to limit the losses of life and property when fires occur. Commencing with a focus on adequate fire-fighting equipment and uniformity of that equipment across America, NBS research moved towards a scientific understanding of the nature of flame and of the mechanisms that contribute to the spread of fires in a variety of settings. Mathematical modeling has become an important feature of the program, leading to a marked ability to predict the danger of fire in specific situations as well as to enable fire fighters to better control fires.

The sixth Historical Lecture was presented on December 3, 2010. Its title was “NBS and the Laser On the 50th Anniversary of the Laser.” Two speakers—Howard P. Layer and William D. Phillips—highlighted different aspects of laser science at NIST. The laser (light amplification by the stimulated emission of radiation) was developed 50 years ago. To celebrate this anniversary, Howard Layer spoke about the use of an iodine-stabilized helium-neon laser to improve the definition of length. This major metrological achievement was made possible during the period 1969 to 1983 through the use of the NIST cesium-based atomic clocks with the added benefit of a defined value for the speed of light. The work involved a collaboration between an NBS Boulder group and their counterparts in Gaithersburg. Layer was directly involved in the experiments. He was joined in the colloquium by William D. Phillips, who demonstrated the use of lasers to slow atomic motion nearly to a Doppler-free state, an achievement for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1997. Phillips presented details of his experiments, and the theory behind them.

The seventh Historical Lecture was given December 2, 2011 by Richard L. Kautz, who participated in the development of arrays of superconducting Josephson junctions to provide a new international standard of voltage. These devices, prepared on a single small chip, replaced the chemical cells that for a century had defined the unit of voltage for standards institutions internationally. Richard shared the NIST 1985 Samuel Wesley Stratton Award with Donald Sullivan. Both were researchers at the NIST laboratories in Boulder, CO.