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Laboratory Astrophysics: The Invention of a New Institution 1939-1968 Transcript

Laboratory Astrophysics: The Invention of a New Institution 1939-1968
Lewis M. Branscomb

This is a text transcript of the video.

Title slide: "Laboratory Astrophysics: The Invention of a New Institution, 1939-1968" : Lewis Branscomb's Presentation at JILA 50th Anniversary, July 12, 2012

Among his many achievements, Lewis Branscomb was the founding chair of JILA, a physicist at the National Bureau of Standards (now the National Institute of Standards and Technology) 1951-1972, and NBS director 1969-1972

Lewis Branscomb (Speaker): So my title is Laboratory Astrophysics: The Invention of a New Institution. I am going to start in 1939, believe it or not.

Let me first just say that JILA was conceived in Moscow, approved in Washington, and born in Boulder 50 years ago. Now, as we look back into the past of a highly successful and widely admired organization, we can appreciate how many people played key roles in this history. And it is very unlikely that anybody in Washington today, or for that matter in most university administrations, could ever bring themselves to do what they did.

The early history of JILA is in two parts, and I'm going to tell you that history. First, I want to talk about the science story, because that's really important. This is about the ideas that led to the idea of an institution like JILA with the name, Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics. Then, I'm going to talk about how JILA got designed and why it happened.

I will start with the scientific story. And I will tell it from my point of view, because Dick Thomas who is co-founder, unfortunately, left this world a long time ago. And there are a lot of other activities, even in the group in Washington—Jan Hall, Pete Bender, and others were doing fabulous things; I'm assuming Jan will talk about that a little later this morning. In any case, I'm going to stick with what motivated me to be interested in the idea: laboratory astrophysics.

So my part of the story goes back to 1939, when an astrophysicist Rupert Wildt had a great idea. He was trying to figure out why the solar photosphere is the temperature it is so that it radiates the spectrum that we all enjoy every day when it's not raining or cloudy. And so his notion was that it was, indeed, the negative ion of atomic hydrogen that was in equilibrium with the radiation coming out of the core of the sun and escaping through the atmosphere that was responsible for the spectral distribution of sunlight as we enjoy it.

There may be a few people in this audience who are unfamiliar with negative ions, and let me just tell you that a negative ion of hydrogen is simply a hydrogen atom with one extra electron; it's a proton with two electrons, and therefore it's negatively charged, and so it's called a negative ion. A positive ion is when you strip one electron off and it's positively charged. Two electrons off and you've got a proton and that's a positive ion of hydrogen.

There were calculations made...well, Rupert Wildt actually did a very crude Born approximation to get the idea of what the H minus spectrum ought to look like. And it wasn't terribly far off, but the accurate calculations were done by Chandrasekhar in Chicago, and then later on refined by Syd Geltman here at JILA. This model of the sun's photosphere, as predicted by Wildt, was consistent with the sun as we observe it. But no measurements of the H minus spectrum were made for another 15 years after Rupert Wildt's paper.

Otto Oldenberg, my research professor at Harvard, was a professor who was never reluctant to give students problems that were too hard to do. And he challenged a graduate student who became a great friend of mine in the Physics Department, Wade Fite, to see if he could, in fact, build an apparatus that would measure the spectrum of H minus. And so Wade undertook that heroic effort. His real problem was how to get a sufficiently intense light beam, so he decided, well, why not use the sun? That's pretty bright. So he found somewhere or other a 36-inch-diameter, chrome-plated Navy searchlight mirror, and he steered it with a heliostat that he made out of two-by-fours—not a great heliostat actually.

And when Wade was absolutely unable to detect any negative ion current, for the simple reason—and that is any negative ion current as a consequence of the sunlight shining on it. And the reason was that, of course, he couldn't get a good enough vacuum, he couldn't get a bright enough light, the negative ions were stripping as they went through the not-good-enough vacuum, and so all the electrons he saw were a result of collisions, not as a result of photodetachment.

So, with the customary arrogance, let me say, of a postdoc, I decided, well heck, I was a postdoc, I could do this experiment—a mere graduate student had failed doing it. So, I worked at it very hard, and I also failed. So at that point, it was clear that the Jefferson Lab at Harvard didn't have the wherewithal to do a project like this. And Edward U. Condon talked me into coming to the Bureau of Standards where he was then director, although he left shortly before I arrived. Later on, of course, he came to JILA, and that's another story.

So I moved down here to JILA...sorry, to Washington to the Bureau of Standards and spent two years by myself trying to build a new apparatus that would actually do the job. And by 1953, the apparatus occasionally looked promising, but I couldn't get all the parts to work at once. But finally, it looked like maybe I could, so I thought, gee, I'm just close now to being able to test this thing—see if I can see the photodetached electrons—it's only fair if I invite Wade Fite, who had tried this so hard and it failed, to come join with me to be partner in the first observation of H minus photodetachment. So he came down on one Sunday; I remember our wives were at home in the kitchen trying to keep our food warm on that particular Sunday day. And that's when we first saw 10-to-the-minus-13 amperes photodetachment signal from H minus. And we reported that in a jointly authored abstract for the winter 1954 meeting of the American Physical Society.

And that was a bit of a triumph, but it was quite clear that still we were not equipped or competent enough or had a good enough apparatus to actually measure something with any accuracy that amounted to anything scientifically. And the thing that saved my day was a student from Harvard, Steve Smith. He was one of Ed Purcell's students. And so Steve came down, and with Steve's collaboration, we were able to measure the H minus photodetachment cross section, the spectral distribution, and the threshold from which we, of course, could measure the electron affinity, or binding energy, of H minus, which we found to be 1.45 plus or minus .15 eV, which is right. And I could never have done this without Steve. Our results confirmed the accuracy of Chandrasekhar's calculations to a statistical accuracy of 2 percent, and our estimated reliability against systematic errors—which is something most scientists ignore but is very important—we thought at least we had those in control under 10 percent. We published two papers in the May 15, 1955, Physical Review, reporting both hydrogen minus and oxygen minus (atomic oxygen negative ion spectra).

By the way, as an amusing footnote to this triumph: It was years later, when it occurred to me—I happened to be, I don't know why I was reading this, but I was reading a paper on the photodissociation of the deuteron—and it occurred to me that if I...with gamma rays, of course. And it occurred to me that if I just transformed the units of mass and the units of energy, which the nuclear people used, into those the atomic physicists used at 1eV, it turned out I got a beautiful picture of the H minus photodetachment cross section. So I could have saved myself a great deal of work by deducing it from the nuclear folks.

Yes, I am about to skip over some really important stuff.

So, our experiments weren't easy to do back in those days. It's a "love, string, and sealing wax" story; it's a long time ago. Our cross-beam apparatus had a vacuum of 10-to-the-minus-6 millimeters, when the source of ions, of course, was leaking gas into the vacuum chamber. Ion currents were, of negative ions are of about 10-to-the-minus-7 amperes. And so the maximum cross section for H minus for photodetachment at the peak is 4 times 10-to-the-minus-17 square centimeters, but the cross section for stripping electrons in background collisions was 20 times bigger. And if we really wanted to make a measurement to 1 percent, when we were getting photodetached electron of about 10 to the minus 12 or 13 amps, we clearly need a thousand times more signal-to-noise ratio. And for that we had R.H. Dicke to thank, who by the way, had only very recently thought up the idea of chopped light with phase-sensitive detection, which enabled us to, by chopping the light, to distinguish the electrons that did come off from photodetachment from those that hit the background gas.

From 1955 on, Steve Smith and I made beams of aluminum, phosphorus, boron, and silicon minus. We looked for, but found there were no negative ions associated with nitrogen, magnesium, or calcium. We studied the detachment spectra and measured the electron affinities of hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, and sulfur, and diatomic molecular ions including O2 minus, CN minus, and the hydroxyl negative ion.

Speaking, by the way, of molecular oxygen, let me suggest the strange field...a strange part of the field of negative ion studies for molecules. And this turned out to be, we found later, there was an opportunity for studying biological effects of breathing molecular oxygen negative ions. You've probably never tried that yourself but you may know or may have observed many advertisements on television of a negative ion generator to put in your bedroom or your living room to make you feel better. And if you don't believe it, we found a paper, which contained the following quote:

"There's something in the air, and while it may not be love, some say it's the next best thing—negative ions. Negative ions are odorless, tasteless, invisible molecules that we inhale in abundance in certain environments. Think mountains, waterfalls, and beaches. Once they reach our bloodstream, negative ions are believed to produce biochemical reactions that increase levels of the mood chemical serotonin, helping to alleviate depression, relieve stress, and boost our daytime energy."

Well, lest you think we overlooked the opportunity to do this biological experiment, Earl Beaty—surely he must be out there—and I decided to do an experiment. And so, we attached a tube to our ion source at the output of the device that sorted out the negative ions from other things. And we injected O2 minus into a breathing tube in which we could take a big puff. And we each took a deep whiff, and I can assure you, euphoria was not our experiment, our sensation. It was the sulfur acid in our noses as a result of the dominance of ozone that comes out of any negative ion generator you can buy.

But, we had abandoned the idea of using the sun as light source long before, and advanced through a progression of ever-higher wattage of arc light sources, settling on a commercial movie theatre projector at one point. The problem was the lack of a monochromatic, tunable source. Gee, we could have bought one if we'd just waited a while, from the speaker we just heard. But, the necessity of finding filters that could withstand kilowatts of light was also a requirement. So instead, we started out with two rather crude, you will say, but heat-resistant optical filters: the red and white-green lenses from a traffic light. By 1958 we had, in fact, filtered the light source from a carbon arc with pairs of interference filters, shielded from the overwhelming infrared energy of the light source by making the light go through a circulating, cold-water filter.

And Steve Smith, David Burch and I used this arrangement to illuminate 5 times 10-to-the-minus-8 amperes of O2 minus. And with about one watt from each of the paired interference filters that we had specially made, we could plot photodetachment cross sections from 4,000 angstroms, where it's about 2.4 times 10-to-the-minus-18 square centimeters down to 2.5 microns, where the cross section for detachment was only 3.75 times 10-to-the-minus-20th centimeter squared. With this experiment and equipment, we were able to plot out the cross section for the atomic O minus and determine that the electron affinity of the atom was 1.465 plus or minus 005eV, which to my great relief was also later confirmed, with apparatus of course, that made it trivially easy; namely, tunable lasers. But that's the future.

By 1959 Steve Smith and Dave Burch were able to apply this quasi-monochromatic light source to the re-measurement of H minus. We considered that our 2.5 kilowatt light source was something of a triumph, but it was a long way from a much brighter, tunable monochromatic source that would let us see fine structure if there were any. We had built for us a very fancy, extremely fast monochromater. The revolution that eventually solved this problem and solved the brightness problem was, of course, the invention of tunable lasers. All of our early heroics—from Cassegrain solar collectors to traffic light filters—was then at an end. And we will come to that event in just a few minutes.

By 1960, Wade Fite had long since gone to the Atomic Physics Laboratory in La Jolla, where I now live. By the way, my appointment now is with the University of California-San Diego, where I have three appointments. I am emeritus at Harvard, though I have a project there also. But Wade was working with Ron Stebbings and Dave Hummer. I thought they were worth mentioning, since they are both former JILA people. And they both came to JILA and, of course, Hummer is really famous not as an astrophysicist but as the founder and CEO of Boulder Beer, of which, by the way, I own two million shares. It's totally worthless, of course; the shares are posted in my bathroom. They were setting out to measure the cross sections for charge transfer and for stripping the electrons in collisions between negative ions and neutral hydrogen atoms. Wade Fite was then able to repay the courtesy I had shown him back in 1953; he invited me to come out and spend the summer and join with Ron Stebbings and Dave Hummer in those experiments.

In 1963, we're now in JILA. Bruce Steiner, Mike Seman, and I made one more improvement in our light source and came closer to monochromatic selection of wavelengths. And this was a 2 and 1/2 kilowatt high-pressure Xenon lamp, filtered with a custom-designed high-aperture monochromator, which I just mentioned. With this instrument, the resulting power in photodetachment studies was good enough to see the detachment of electrons in the ground state of iodine to each of final 2P3 halves and 2P1 half states of the neutral atom. In 1965, I, with Steve Smith and Tisone, were able to see the same phenomenon in transfers from...transitions from O minus to both the O3P ground state of oxygen and the metastable singlet D state—that's a metastable excited state of neutral oxygen. And this is important because it is that transition back to the ground state—it takes 110 seconds, it's forbidden—but that's the famous red line of the aurora in the night sky that those of you who look for it have no doubt seen.

We looked for possible metastable states in atomic negative ions, and we did discover in C minus a bound excited state. In 1961, Mike Seman and I were able to detect a small absorption at wavelengths longer than the threshold of photodetachment from the 4S ground state of C minus. Thus, we could assign with confidence to the carbon negative ion, a metastable 2D state. This was the first observation of a bound excited state in an atomic negative ion.

Based on that observation, we predicted that an excited state in silicon minus should also exist. But after preliminary success, in which we actually made silicon ions in our ion source out of a discharge through silane, which is silicon tetrachloride, a chemist friend warned us that silane is highly explosive and ignites spontaneously at temperatures way below that of our ion source. So we backed off from using silane in our hot cathode ion source and never resumed to look for the photodetachment spectrum of silicon and its anticipated ground state.

Now Carl Lineberger, whom you all know, not only later made silicon negative ions from silane himself but found the predicted excited state. And what this proves is that chemists will go where physicists dare not tread. Now such states are more commonplace, and in fact, at the conference celebrating Carl Lineberger's 70th birthday not too long ago, there was a report there of an exited negative ion state having been discovered in lanthanum minus! Good heavens!

For 12 years, I believe that the Bureau of Standards Atomic Physics Section and later, the JILA laboratory, were the only places where negative ion photodetachment was studied in crossed light and ion beams in vacuum. Those experiments were not easy then. Today, armed with lasers, chemists are publishing papers on photodetachment that attract, in one recent case, 35,300 hits on Google. If I ever got a hit on Google, I never knew it.

I have summarized the science in which I was engaged. Now we'll move to Boulder and the early work at JILA back in '62. And I assume Jan Hall will tell you more about other things that went on both at the Bureau of Standards and in JILA. Pete Bender, Jan Hall, and others were doing fabulous stuff. But I can't resist telling you one of Jan's achievements, which my guess is he will not talk about, that put my arc lamps and traffic light filters to shame.

Not content with illuminating negative ions one photon at a time, Jan Hall estimated that we would be able to liberate 30 double-photon electrons—that is, absorbing two photons at once, to double the energy of each photon—from a single pulse of his ruby laser on an iodine negative ion. Iodine is very easy to make, it's got a strong binding energy; got to be way in the ultraviolet to do it with one photo. In a 1965 paper by Hall, Robinson, and myself, we reported a transition probability per photon of 180 times 10-to-the-minus-51 for double-photon detachment. With this laser, by single photon absorption, single pulses would completely strip 100 percent of the electrons off any old negative ion beam.

With the ruby laser, the single photon detachment current had been increased by...over my 2.5 kilowatt high-pressure Xenon lamp by a factor of 10 trillion! The equipment we had used for 12 years was now ready for the museum.

And I will now turn to the institutional invention of JILA, because that was the end of photodetachment done my way. Back in...and the chemists took it over and Lineberger did fabulous things. Back in 1958, it was obvious that we needed better facilities; better contact with atmospheric scientists and astrophysicists, and above all, we needed graduate students. If possible, we also needed an even more creative environment than the Bureau of Standards already provided. But I must say the Bureau of Standards does awfully well compared to any other government lab I've ever heard of.

Dick Thomas, a key co-founder of JILA, was a Harvard-trained theoretical astrophysicist. He appreciated that quantitative knowledge of optical and atomic collision processes were necessary to understand the behavior of hot gases that were not in thermodynamic equilibrium. My dissertation at Harvard had, in fact, explored non-equilibrium optical processes in oxygen molecules—this is neutral molecules—in the Earth's high upper atmosphere, because a scientist in Norway had done spectroscopy on O2 spectra at 1,000 kilometers altitude and had falsely concluded that the temperature was very low. And that's wrong. My thesis was all about why that was wrong because he didn't take into account the non-equilibrium state of the rotational temperature of those molecules.

In the year 1958, Thomas and I conceived the JILA idea. I had published a paper on negative ions in stellar atmospheres with Bernard Pagel of the Royal Greenwich Observatory. Thomas and I were attending the Moscow meeting of the International Astronomical Union, where our convergent interests led to the idea of laboratory astrophysics, now known, unhappily, only as JILA. I'm going to ask you about that later. The idea behind this now-abandoned title was very simple. If science were to master the behavior of gaseous systems out of thermodynamic equilibrium, such as stellar atmospheres, indeed in plasma physics generally, you would have to know not only a sophisticated radiative transfer theory, which is what Thomas did, but also the absolute value of various optical and collision processes of atoms, molecules, and ions in those atmospheres.

Not only were our PhDs both from Harvard in the same years, but we were now both working for the National Bureau of Standards, it turned out. Dick and his colleague, John Jeffries, were at the High Altitude Observatory here in Boulder, but they were working for NBS in Washington where, indeed, I was at the time, and with a team of extraordinary talent, among them Steve Smith, Pete Bender, Jan Hall, Earl Beaty, Syd Geltman, had been assembled.

And all of the Bureau of Standards and CU fellows who, in fact, were here in 1962, if there are any of you—I know there are at least two—please stand up. Ah, I was right... two three, four, five. OK, keep standing. Now, I want to know how many of you joined JILA between '62 and '68—that's 44 years ago, already. That's a pretty remarkable group.

How would we then bring off the creation of a new JILA? We were naïve and idealistic, but I can assure you that Dick Thomas, while he might have been naïve, was certainly determined. He's one of these people who never let anybody say "it can't be done," no matter how great the obstacles were.

And indeed, when we went to see the NBS Director Allen Astin, not having been willing to take risks and had not shared our vision, JILA would never have happened. But when I told Astin that the Atomic Physics Group at the Bureau in Washington and the two NBS astrophysicists in Boulder—Thomas and Jeffries—proposed to leave the Bureau to start an institute at a university, Astin's response was absolutely astonishing. He said, to this effect: "Great idea. But you don't have to leave the Bureau staff. I will move your team, its budget, and its apparatus to the university you choose." Now by saying that he would fund us as NBS employees to work with academic colleagues in a university, Astin, in effect, was the inventor of the idea of a joint institute. He had, in fact, done it once before in Southern California in applied mathematics, which was no longer at that time existing, but it also was a kind of joint institute, which I didn't know about.

We then shared a little later with Astin, Dick Thomas's dream, because Thomas didn't think that was good enough. And Thomas insisted we had to have a visiting fellows program. Why not bring the best physicists, chemists, astronomers, and so on, for a year of research at JILA, from wherever they lived in the world, with all their families, at our expense, to come spend a year. And Astin said "Well, I'll try to raise the money for that, too." Incredible.

A number of universities liked our vision. We did try quite a number. But unfortunately, they had a strange idea that when we presented them our list of scientists from Boulder and importantly, Washington, they said "Well, we want to pick and choose the ones we want." We said "Sorry, this is a package deal. You take the whole package or we don't come."

You see Boulder, however, was different. First of all, Thomas and Jeffries were already here. Secondly, we had the benefit of an extraordinary, enthusiastic, then I think called president, but now he would be chancellor, Quigg Newton, who had been mayor of Denver. And he knew what a strong scientific community could mean to Colorado. The childhood of JILA was then nurtured by the collaboration of two visionaries: the Bureau of Standards Director Astin, the CU Chancellor Newton. And another indispensable founder, by the way, who shouldn't be overlooked, is the late Wes Brittin, chairman of the CU Physics Department at the time. He would bring in Bureau of Standards scientists who qualified for his faculty—that was fine—as adjunct professors. He didn't have to pay them, which was good enough, but he also agreed to rename his department Physics and Astrophysics, which I thought was pretty generous.

Now to execute the dream of a joint institute, we drafted a Memorandum of Understanding, which was agreed to by Astin and Newton. And Astin got the approval of the Secretary of Commerce. And Newton invited me to present the memorandum to a meeting of the Board of Regents of the university, who also had to approve this deal.

When the critical meeting of the Board of Regents was about to happen in one afternoon, that morning I had to make copies of the Memorandum of Understanding because there had been some modest changes made only that night before. And where could I get 13 copies of this document? Not a very long document. I went to the Office of the Director of the NBS Boulder Laboratories and I asked the director's secretary, "Please, could you make 13 copies of this little memorandum for me?" She was standing right next to a huge copying machine; it was in her office.

"I am sorry," she said, "but I cannot do it. It's against the rules to make more than 10 copies of anything on this office copier. To make more than 10 copies, you have to go to the Duplicating Department, and they will gladly do it tomorrow or the next day."

Well, I couldn't go to the meeting with the regents single handed. And so I said, "Well, who made the rule?" "Well, the director did." "Well, may I see him?" So she went into his office and persuaded him to come out of his office, and I explained my predicament, and he confirmed that indeed, rules are rules, and that he had made the rule, and it couldn't be violated. And I said, "But if you made the rule, do you also have the authority to suspend your rule?" And he thought about that for a...he'd never thought about that before. And finally he concluded that yes, he did have that authority, and indeed, he did have the power and he would agree to exercise it. And the regents were then pleased with the document and unanimously approved it. 

Now, this particular little anecdote was not meant to criticize Mr. Brown but to illustrate our desire to keep JILA clear of bureaucracy if we possibly could. To this end, Astin had already agreed that our NBS people in JILA would report directly back to Washington, to the Bureau of Standards, not locally in Boulder. And of course, the CU people would already be reporting to their department chairs.

JILA's next problem: How to fund the new building for JILA on the CU campus? We found financing from ARPA, the Defense Department's advanced research laboratory. We tried them because they had done this several times. And its director, another visionary, Bob Sproull, proved to be, indeed, a visionary. He said he could no longer... he was no longer allowed to fund new research universities in academic institutions, "But," he said to our great surprise and delight, "how would you like, instead, to have a continuing annual research grant of $500,000, renewed each year for the third year into the future?" Wow! The new building, then ... I mean, that's incredible. This is 1962 money we're talking about.

Now, the new building was then made possible by the imagination of another visionary: CU's Chief Financial Officer, Leo Hill. With Allen Astin's written assurance that the Bureau of Standards would continue to pay rent on its half of the new building, Hill used this document from Astin as collateral for a loan from the State of Colorado retirement fund to match a grant to CU from the National Science Foundation. And by doing that, we appear to have matched NSF's federal money with NBS's federal money. Not many people have done that, and this was Leo Hill's invention.

Another special thanks are due to Steve Smith, who took charge of our move from Washington—that was no small task—and to set up the instrument shop that would be the Bureau of Standards...a Bureau of Standards contribution, an important one, to our joint endeavor. And Steve recruited Carl Pelander, absolutely wonderful person, to come out from Washington Bureau of Standards and run JILA's master instrument shop. Indeed, he would be the master instrument maker.

Now, the founding scientists at CU and the Bureau of Standards, together with Astin, Newton, Hill, and , were responsible for—and I should say Sproull—were responsible for the magic of JILA's extraordinary success. Not only did JILA offer a remarkable scientific environment, its collaborative organizational structure provides a minimum of unnecessary bureaucracy.

JILA's special secret, I will now reveal: From an administrative perspective, JILA actually does not exist.

Here's how it works:

One: There would be no director of JILA, only a chair of JILA Fellows, self-appointed from among staffs at each partner institution. JILA would have no budget, makes no appointments. The partnership between two independent institutions, Bureau of Standards and CU Boulder, would be governed through the simple Memorandum of Understanding.

Two: Each partner would cover its own costs. Everyone in JILA is paid by one of these institutions, never by both. JILA-NIST people would report to NIST; CU people reported to department chairs.

Three: Each partner would provide and support those functions it does best. Bureau of Standards provided highly professional instrument makers and shops; CU provided, among other things, the vital service of graduate students and postdocs.

Number four: Despite these clear distinctions in administrative accountability between the partners, JILA's scientific program would be guided by voluntary collaboration with all of its JILA Fellows. The Fellows would choose a chair to preside over the Fellows.

Should this—this is number five—should this voluntary collaboration with shared resources ever fail for lack of an agreement among the Fellows who couldn't resolve it, the problem, under the Memorandum of Understanding, would be elevated, believe it or not, to the chancellor of CU and the U.S. Secretary of Commerce to resolve. Can you imagine having to do that? In 50 years, this has never happened, since neither partner's interests in JILA can succeed without the other's success as well. Therefore, you have to agree.

From a scientific perspective, JILA is unusual in another respect. It was created to pursue a broad vision—laboratory astrophysics, whatever that is—to which it would contribute significantly, but would never fully achieve the goals of laboratory astrophysics. Within a very broad interpretation of this vision, JILA has always been guided by maximizing and exploiting its best scientific opportunities.

JILA Fellows and staff would never have been so creative and so successful if each project were subjected to the two most frequently demanded requirements from all administrators, at least all the ones I know:

One, question: "How will JILA measure the extent to which each project fulfills the founding vision?" We didn't even try.

Two: "How much of its research will be basic, and how much applied"? We never voluntarily made that distinction. 

On one occasion, when the Bureau of Standards insisted on such a categorization of basic versus applied, Syd Geltman, described his theoretical physics calculations as "applied" because he thought the computations might be useful someday to astrophysicists. Pete Bender and Jan Hall described their manual work digging and installing a long vacuum pipe in a wet gold mine as "basic," since their intention was to measure more accurately the speed of light, if they ever got it built. I found categorizations of science into basic or applied, ludicrous. And years I later, published a paper entitled "Physics—Used and Unused." And to my delight, it was republished as "Physik—Gebraucht und Ungebraucht," in Physikalische Blatter.

And finally, there is JILA's secret competitive advantage. This is the other secret.

Because each institution pays for half the costs in JILA but shares in all of the science, the bookkeepers in each organization will see JILA's productivity twice that of any other component of their institution who lacked a financial silent partner. 

People who study the life and death of institutions, [are] fond of believing that, with rare exceptions, institutions are formed, grow, improve, and fade to oblivion or are transformed into something totally different. JILA does not conform to that prediction. It is has become more productive, more creative, and more influential every year and continues to do so today.

JILA succeeds because of its core values, its freedom to take risks, its multidisciplinary community, and its link with scientists in other institutions in the U.S. and all over the world. If JILA adheres to these transitions and traditions, it will continue to thrive for another half century.

Thank you.

And I have a question for the audience. I want somebody to tell me why you stopped calling it this the Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics. Who knows the answer?

[Audience member]: I can address part of that. There were a bunch of radicals that thought the name should be changed, but modified to meet the times, so the idea was it should be the Joint Institute for Lasers and Atoms.

[Branscomb]: That's not bad. That's even broader, it gives you even more room to move. Anyway, I don't object to calling it JILA. There are a lot of institutions who have initials as their names, and nobody knows what they mean.

[Audience member]: I once had a student, my first student here, who married my second student. And said, "Oh yeah, it's the Jolly Institute for Love Affairs."

The Jolly Institute for Love Affairs, that's funny.

[Audience member]: I am just wondering what role would you say Mike Seaton had in the development of JILA? My impression is, he was involved in a lot of the discussions that led to JILA.

[Branscomb]: Mike was ... I had ... The year that I wrote the joint paper with Pagel at Royal Greenwich Observatory, I was there working with Mike. And so Seaton and I had a lot of conversations about my ideas, but this is before I got to Moscow and ran into Dick Thomas, who was in the same class I was at Harvard but we'd met but I didn't...we didn't really know one another. But once we got to the task of Thomas and myself trying to launch JILA, the idea of attracting Mike Seaton just looked like too hard to accomplish right off the bat, particularly since I was well aware that he had been a member of the Communist Party in England up until the Russians invaded one of the Eastern European countries, and then he quit. But he had a ... but Mike got a special dispensation from the State Department to come to the United States, so he could easily have come. At that point, this visionary administration, CU, were happy to offer him a full professorship here at the university. We timidly ... I guess if Thomas had done it, maybe he could have pulled it off, but there was no way one member of that Board of Regents would ever agree to appointment of a former, very former, communist. And so that was the end of our ability to get Mike on the staff. Now, we had a good many visits from Mike, and certainly, he's a good example because he did both theory and also oversaw, over both... By the way, Fites, Fite was in London, too. Not the same time I was, just before. And so Seaton had a good deal of influence on us, and we maybe some on him.

[Audience member]: Okay, last question.

[Audience member]: JILA was born during the Cold War. And I am wondering if you could comment on to what extent the geopolitical environment of that time, and perhaps the desire to ... [remainder of question inaudible]

[Branscomb]: God bless the Cold War. The whole story was not Cold War, but Sputnik. And Sputnik shocked the American political community as well as the public, that somehow or other we thought we were better at everything always, and it turned out, we weren't always. In fact, when we first tried to build rockets to go into orbit, they blew up. And it took a while. So, that point, for that period, from the Sputnik for the next four or five years, the Congress was very generous to science. And that's part of the reason why a number of these wonderfully risk-taking senior people were prepared to take risks. If you tried to take those kind of risks right now, you'd never get anything, I don't think.

[Audience member]: Lewis, can you say something more about Condon coming here, and also the UFO study?

[Branscomb]: Oh, yes, absolutely. I mentioned that Ed Condon was director of the Bureau when he offered me the job to go down there and do this experiment, but before I got there, he had been accused by Congressman Thomas of being the weakest link in American's atomic security. He had given lectures on nuclear science to the members of Congress after the bomb, and he talked down to them, unfortunately. And his wonderful little wife subscribed to the Daily Worker and some other unpopular magazines with the security folks, and so he lost his security clearance and went off to do industry things. When I got out here and JILA was going, well I said, "That's a problem we have to fix."And so I called up a good friend of mine who was then the director of what was then ARPA, and I said "Look, it must be possible for ... since you're funding our research, it must be possible for you to have a requirement for JILA to do some consulting for the Defense Department from time to time." And he said, "Well, that sounds reasonable." And I said, "Well, we have a wonderful theoretical physicist that's available to us, but he has a problem. If you just needed something that was classified to be worked on, he would need a clearance." "Who's that?" "Edward U. Condon." "Oh, of course, he said, "yes, we very much need a JILA staff member who knows theoretical physics and who has a security clearance..." So I said, "Fine, we will fill out the forms, we'll send them to you, you process them." And by golly, we got his secret clearance back.

Now at that point, this had really nothing to do with the other thing you asked about, which was the Air Force decided it was bored to tears with people who kept coming up claiming that the government knew about flying saucers and little green men and weren't telling the public. And there was always this place down in New Mexico, and so on. And so finally they said, "We're going to do, once and for all, the study of the little green men and such matters." And somebody had advised them that there was a very famous theoretical physicist who was widely admired by the whole scientific community, and so they came to Ed Condon and asked him, "Would you head this project? And we will fund it for [I think] two years." And Ed Condon said "I think that's a great idea." And he came to me and he said, "They will fund this project." I said, "That's great, but not in JILA. Because I know what's going to happen if you do this study. You're going to get mud all over your face." But, I said, "Why do you want to do it?" He said, "It's very simple." I said, "Do you believe in little green men?" No, of course. But, he said, "I can't prove to you they don't exist. What do you suppose the probability is there are people living on other planets who visited our planet? Suppose the probability is 10-to-the-minus-52. I want to be the person to discover it, that it happened." I said, "Fine, you're a professor at the university; start it." So he did the project.

And I want to tell you two last things; I know we're behind. One is an experiment they did.

They got a good team of folks, I don't know, maybe eight or 10 people in their team. They did a lot... Oh, by the way, the Air Force opened up all the books. They could see any document they wanted in the Air Force. And so they sent a team of people out to a small town, I think in Nebraska, a town of maybe 5,000 people. And they went to the mayor and asked him to call in the chief of police. And told the two people they were doing this study of UFOs for the government, and they wanted to do an experiment, and here's how it's going to work, and we want your permission. We're going to send one of our guys out to the outskirts of town where we saw a gas station that had a phone booth. And he's going to go out there to that phone booth and dial your local radio station. And he's going to say "Oh my god, you can't, you can't imagine what I can see! It's a flying saucer has landed and the door opened, and there are little green men in there. And they saw me, and they closed the door and took off. But it left a burned area in the grass!" And then he hung up. And that's what he did. Well, the mayor and the police chief agreed to do this. And the end of the story, of course, all the rest of the people scanned around the town to find what was going on. Seventeen people reported to the radio station or the police that they had seen the flying saucer and the little green men.

And the final thing is the disappointing reason and the reason I didn't want it at JILA. This study. And that's because there was a sociologist, whose name I will not mention who was on our faculty who begged to be on the project. And Condon never said no to anybody. And he got on the project and he kept silent for the first six or eight months and then he turned out to be an absolute, born-and-bred believer—from the start. And he, when they got the report ready to go, he went to the newspapers and did everything he could to try to kill it.

So, that's what happened to good old Ed Condon.

Created July 8, 2013, Updated June 2, 2021