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The Person Behind the Nobel Prize: Jan Hall

NIST Senior Fellow Emeritus John L. “Jan” Hall was born in Denver, Colorado, on August 21, 1934. His mother was an elementary school teacher and singer; his father was an electrical engineer who worked for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation on hydroelectric projects in the United States and abroad. 

 

Jan Hall and his dad in 1936
Credit: Jan Hall
Jan Hall and his dad in 1936.

One day in the 1940s, the family’s coal bin ran low, and the young Hall found his dad’s old radio electronics, left over from earlier days as a hobbyist, mired in black dust. With a salvaged car battery powering old vacuum tubes, Hall commenced his first, informal laboratory work. He later augmented this with what he calls “pyrotechnical studies” involving model rockets. 

 

Jan Hall's high school yearbook photo.
Credit: Jan Hall
Jan Hall's high school yearbook photo.

Following high school in Denver, Hall won a scholarship from the Westinghouse company, and studied physics at the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now part of Carnegie Mellon University) in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, graduating in 1956.

He stayed on for his master’s and doctoral degrees, and did his thesis work studying the energy levels of hydrogen atoms locked in calcium fluoride crystals. Hall graduated with his Ph.D. in 1961, and joined NIST at its location in Washington, DC, as a National Research Council postdoctoral fellow that year. 

In March 1958, Hall married his sweetheart, Marilyn (Lindy). The two would go on to have three children.

 

Jan Hall in a cap and gown with his wife and child receiving his PhD
Credit: Courtesy Jan Hall
Jan Hall with his wife and son upon receiving his Ph.D. from Carnegie Institute of Technology.

In 1962, Hall moved to Boulder, Colorado, as a founding member of the new Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics (now JILA), a NIST-University of Colorado joint institute on the University of Colorado campus in Boulder. 

 

Jan and Lindy Hall with their three kids
Credit: Jan Hall
Jan and Lindy Hall picnicking with their three kids during the early 1970s in Canyonlands National Park, Utah.

“He’s just such a genuinely kind and supportive person. A person who was of course a very strong scientist, and very focused on the scientific goals that were at hand, but someone who also really cared about the people who worked with him, and really looked after the people who worked with him. And was just a fun guy to be around. Very excited about science, and contagious in that sense. He’d come into the lab and be like, ‘Wow, that’s great!’ It bred excitement.”

– Scott Diddams, NIST Fellow, former Jan Hall postdoc

Created March 2, 2017, Updated November 17, 2019