Former NIST Director Lewis Branscomb Linked the Curiosity of Scientists With the Wants of the Nation

Lewis Branscomb with the instrument he developed to measure the absorption of sunshine by hydrogen ions. Credit score: NIST

Lewis Branscomb, the director of the Nationwide Bureau of Requirements (NBS) from 1969 to 1972, died in Might at 96 years previous. He led groups of scientists to pioneering discoveries, and when he left the company, now often known as Nationwide Institute of Requirements and Expertise (NIST), he was solely 45, but he had already clocked extra skilled achievements than most expertise in a lifetime.

To go far it helps to begin early, and Branscomb did that. He graduated from Duke College with a physics diploma in 1945, when he was 19 years previous, and earned his Ph.D. in mathematical physics from Harvard College 4 years later. He joined NBS in 1951 and instantly got down to show a principle in regards to the Solar.

That principle had been derived from mathematical and bodily ideas, however nobody had but succeeded in making the troublesome measurements wanted to show it. Within the roiling ambiance of the Solar, the idea held, charged atoms, or ions, of hydrogen absorbed among the Solar’s radiation, altering the wavelengths of sunshine that attain us right here on Earth. To show the idea, Branscomb must measure the absorption of sunshine by hydrogen ions within the lab.

This could have been comparatively straightforward a decade later, when he may have used a laser as a lightweight supply. However lasers hadn’t been invented but, so Branscomb constructed a fancy measurement equipment that at one level mixed the arc lamp of a cinema projector with the pink and inexperienced lenses of a visitors gentle.

It took Branscomb three years to make the measurement, and he did verify the idea in regards to the Solar. Extra importantly, he developed new methods to measure the basic properties of ions and the way they behave in atmospheric gases. This allowed scientists to determine what sorts of atoms had been within the atmospheres of distant stars primarily based on the wavelengths of sunshine they emitted. It additionally utilized to phenomena right here on Earth, the place ions work together to kind pollution within the ambiance and, within the ozone layer, shield us from ultraviolet radiation.

Lewis Branscomb Credit score: NIST

Branscomb made his repute in experimental physics by pulling off difficult laboratory measurements like that one. However he was additionally rapidly acknowledged for his capacity to draw funding to massive analysis tasks and make them profitable. An official NIST historical past stated that “these qualities had been mixed in his nature with a really persuasive character to make him the middle of a whirlwind of exercise.”

“He may speak,” stated Wolfgang Wiese in a cellphone interview. Wiese, a physicist Branscomb recruited to NBS in 1960, added, “He may persuade individuals. When he obtained satisfied of one thing, he was very highly effective in getting individuals keen about it.”

Branscomb additionally had a knack for hiring the appropriate individuals and inspiring their curiosity. Jan Corridor, who got here to NBS in 1961 as a postdoc in Branscomb’s division and went on to win the Nobel Prize in physics, stated he and his colleagues didn’t all the time know what the sensible purposes of their analysis can be, however they pursued their concepts out of pure curiosity.

“Branscomb didn’t see that as a waste of time, however as precisely the factor we had been presupposed to be doing,” Corridor stated in a cellphone interview. “We had been like youngsters having an journey. Plenty of issues got here out of that neighborhood.”

On the similar time, Branscomb served on many authorities committees, together with President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Science Advisory Committee throughout the early years of the Apollo venture. This gave him insights into the technological priorities of presidency and business and allowed him to channel the creativity of NBS researchers towards the wants of the nation.

“The factor that Branscomb was most essential for is the concept that it’s cheap to make use of public funds for one thing that we will’t clarify precisely why it will likely be essential,” stated Corridor, whose Nobel-winning breakthroughs with lasers and the optical frequency comb, a way for exactly measuring gentle frequencies, ended up having huge sensible purposes throughout the economic economic system. “He was one of many fathers of publicly funded analysis within the U.S.”

In 1962, Branscomb co-founded the Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics, a collaboration between NBS and the College of Colorado Boulder. On this, he was pushed by an concept that was nonetheless comparatively new on the time — that laboratory measurements made right here on Earth may very well be used to know phenomena in distant stars and galaxies. Experimental physicists together with Jan Corridor labored alongside astrophysicists on the institute on their widespread analysis pursuits.

These pursuits advanced and expanded a lot that the institute finally dropped the phrase “astrophysics” from its title. At this time it’s recognized merely as “JILA,” and is a premier middle of analysis and educating targeted on atomic and molecular physics, quantum data science, nanoscience and different important applied sciences. In an unpublished 2012 interview by which he regarded again on his lengthy profession, Branscomb described JILA as his “biggest institutional achievement.”

Branscomb turned the sixth director of NBS following his nomination by President Richard Nixon in 1969. Along with his rising repute and expertise for persuasive communication, he rapidly raised the company’s stature. An article in Science Journal described Branscomb as “the person who aroused the low-profile and considerably sleepy company to such prominence in recent times.” However his directorship didn’t final lengthy. Branscomb left NBS in 1972, after two and a half years within the director’s workplace.

The second half of Branscomb’s life was as productive as the primary. He spent the following decade and a half as chief scientist at IBM, at a time when the corporate was growing new semiconductor and networking applied sciences and designing its first private computer systems. He then went on to develop into director of the Science, Expertise and Public Coverage Program on the John F. Kennedy College of Authorities at Harvard College. In his talking and writing he continued to advocate for public funding in scientific analysis and argued that science schooling and scientific literacy are important to the well being of democratic societies. In recognition of his assist of ecological analysis and safety, a glacier in Antarctica is called after him.

In his e-book Confessions of a Technophile, revealed in 1995, Branscomb described what it was wish to be a analysis physicist within the late Forties. “At each hand there have been great alternatives for discovery,” he wrote. “There was extra thrilling physics than anybody may hope to do in a lifetime.”

It’s wonderful how a lot progress was made in only one lifetime. The place Branscomb made measurements utilizing the sunshine from a cinema projector lamp and visitors gentle lenses, right this moment scientists use excessive ultraviolet gentle to etch billions of exactly shaped transistors onto a single pc chip. A great deal of that progress was made by the various scientists Branscomb led and impressed. He enlarged the house for scientists to do elementary analysis with no apparent near-term payoff. Ultimately, the payoff for science and the nation was immense.

Lewis Branscomb in ‘The Romance of Precision Measurement’

In 1953, then-NBS director Allen V. Astin spoke earlier than the American Bodily Society in regards to the institute’s values and the important position scientific advances performed in supporting U.S. business. It’s a message that has resonated with NIST administrators ever since, together with Lewis Branscomb. (Branscomb clip at 2:58.)