Remembering JILA Founder Lewis M. Branscomb

Submitted by kennac on Mon, 07/10/2023 - 9:32 am

JILA founding member and astrophysicist Lewis M. Branscomb 

Image Credit
Wikimedia Commons

(January 17, 1926 - May 31, 2023)

It is with heavy hearts that the JILA and NIST communities mourn the loss of renowned physicist Lewis Branscomb, who passed away on May 31, 2023, leaving behind an indelible legacy in the world of science and a profound impact on JILA. Branscomb, a brilliant mind and a cherished member of JILA will forever be remembered for his groundbreaking contributions to the field of physics and his unwavering commitment to advancing scientific knowledge. His dedication to founding JILA and serving as its first Fellow Chair will remain forever in JILA’s collective memory. His insatiable curiosity and intellectual prowess paved the way for a remarkable career that spanned over six decades.

Branscomb’s Early Career

Born on August 17, 1926, in Asheville, North Carolina, Lewis Branscomb's thirst for knowledge led him on a remarkable journey through the realms of scientific discovery. Educated at Duke University, he earned his Bachelor's in Physics in 1945 summa cum laude (at age 19) and a Ph.D. in Mathematical Physics in 1949 from Harvard University. In the years between his bachelor’s and his Ph.D. degrees, Branscomb served as a U.S. Naval Reserve Officer in the Philippines during World War II as part of an accelerator program at Duke to train scientists. After receiving his Ph.D. in 1949, Branscomb was appointed a Junior Fellow in the Harvard Society of Fellows. 

In 1951, Branscomb joined the National Bureau of Standards (NBS, later to become the National Institute of Standards and Technology or NIST) as a research scientist. Branscomb's research focused on astrophysics and precision measurement. In the book JILA: the First 50 Years, Branscomb stated, “At the National Bureau of Standards, Steve Smith and I were exploiting new spectroscopy tools to study negative hydrogen ions that control the temperature of the solar photosphere.” During this time, Branscomb began collaborating with physicist and later co-founder of JILA, Richard “Dick” Thomas, to create a research institute focused on laboratory astrophysics.

Branscomb's Work Creating JILA 

In the early 1960s, few institutes offered astrophysicists laboratories to study outer space phenomena. This forced many scientists to change their career trajectories or focus on other topics entirely. Seeing these issues, Branscomb and Thomas approached then NBC Director Allen Astin with a proposal to create a new institute focused solely on laboratory astrophysics. Astin agreed to their proposal and suggested partnering with a university to share in funding and talent. While Branscomb and Thomas toured various universities, the University of Colorado Boulder seemed the most appealing, as several CU administrators were enthusiastic about a future institution.

One Branscomb and Thomas decided on CU Boulder, and several university faculty, Astin, and other NBS members raised funds to build a new building. In 1962, the Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics (JILA) was officially born, erecting a tower on the western part of CU Boulder’s campus. Branscomb helped create the by-laws for JILA and served as its first Fellow Chair. As founding member, Steven J. Smith later stated: “There would have been no JILA without the leadership of Lewis Branscomb…” At JILA, Branscomb’s intellect and innovative thinking flourished, and he became an influential figure, inspiring generations of scientists to push the boundaries of human understanding. His collaborations with other JILA scientists and his dedication to mentoring young researchers significantly impacted the development of atomic clocks, quantum optics, and precision metrology.

Beyond his exceptional scientific achievements, Branscomb was known for his kindness, generosity, and passion for teaching. He nurtured an environment of collaboration and encouraged interdisciplinary research, bringing together physicists, chemists, and engineers to explore uncharted territories. His wisdom and guidance were invaluable to countless scientists, fostering an atmosphere of innovation and intellectual rigor at JILA.

A Move to NBS

While at JILA, Branscomb sat on the Presidential Advisory Committee for President Lyndon B. Johnson. His expertise in astrophysics was influential in helping the Committee oversee NASA’s Apollo program in the 1960s. Branscomb chaired the Committee’s Panel on Space Science and Technology.

In 1969, Branscomb transitioned from JILA to the NBS, where President Richard Nixon named him the Director of the NBS. Branscomb would hold this position until 1972. 

Later Career 

In 1972, Branscomb decided to move to the private sector and joined IBM as their Chief Scientist and later a member of the IBM Corporate Management Board. His vast knowledge and keen insights were influential in helping IBM during the period when the company was developing space shuttle components and creating personal computers.  

According to an obituary for Branscomb, written by his son Harvie Branscomb: “In 1980, President Carter appointed him to the National Science Board becoming chairman between 1982 and 1984. The Advisory Committee on Antarctic Names recognized his substantial contribution to the ecological protection of the continent with the naming of Branscomb Peak and Branscomb Glacier. The latter serves as a base camp for ascents of the highest point in Antarctica.” 

After his time at IBM and the National Science Board, Branscomb became a professor at Harvard University and Director of the Science, Technology, and Public Policy Program at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. In 1996, he retired. 

On May 31, 2023, Branscomb passed away at the age of 96 from natural causes, around four years after suffering from severe brain trauma after a tragic fall in 2019. 

Awards and Recognitions

Lewis Branscomb's contributions to science were widely recognized and honored. He received numerous prestigious awards and accolades throughout his career, including the Okawa Prize in 1998 “for outstanding contributions to the progress of informatics, scientific and technological policy, and corporate management” and the Vannevar Bush Award from the National Science Board in 2001 “for his distinguished public service in the development of U.S. science and technology policy; a scientist, teacher, scholar, business leader and author who has influenced policies of recent Administrations, he has been an inspiration to students and colleagues and a valuable asset to the Nation.” Branscomb was also awarded honorary doctorates from fifteen universities. He also was a member of all three National Academies: of Sciences, of Engineering and of Medicine. Branscomb also served as President of the American Physical Society in 1979 and as the Editor of the Reviews of Modern Physics from 1963-1969. He was also the author of over a dozen books and hundreds of scientific papers.

While the loss of Lewis Branscomb leaves a void in the scientific community, his remarkable legacy will continue to inspire future generations of physicists and scientists. His unwavering dedication to knowledge, his commitment to excellence, and his relentless pursuit of understanding the fundamental nature of the universe will forever guide the scientific endeavors at JILA.

Our thoughts and condolences go out to Lewis Branscomb's family, friends, colleagues, and the countless individuals whose lives he touched. May his legacy continue to inspire future generations. 

Written by Kenna Hughes-Castleberry, JILA Science Communicator

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