James K. Thompson was born to John and Noreen Thompson in Fort Worth, Texas, and moved to Orlando, Florida when he was seven years old. His father was a Baptist minister who had abandoned his study of mathematics, and his mother was an elementary school teacher. Together they fostered the sense that education and curiosity about the world were critical to being a complete and happy person.
James’ interest in math was fueled at the age of nine by learning to program video games on his first computer, a Commodore 64, which was his all-time favorite Christmas present. A second powerful influence on his eventual career choice was that James had notoriously bad summer jobs. While scrubbing roadside curbs using acid during a hot Florida summer, James thought "they really ought to hire someone to do this," only to immediately realize that they had, and it was him! He decided then and there that he would work his tail off to make sure that he would not end up doing such jobs for a living.
In junior high school, James wanted to be an engineer. But, in high school he realized that what he really meant was physicist—the people who ask the universe why. It was also in high school that James met an intelligent and beautiful girl that he somehow convinced to marry him some seven years later. His wife Deborah Whitehead is a professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado, and together they have three children. Raising them has taught him the invaluable skill of taking naps on the JILA elevators--a skill that he does not have to use as often now that they are getting older
James attended Florida State University, earning a B.A. and M.S in physics in 1995 and 1997, respectively. He performed laser spectroscopy on fast beams of highly charged ions generated using a particle accelerator. The results were used to test relativistic many-body calculations relevant for determining the fine structure constant from precise measurements in helium.
James received his Ph.D. in physics in 2004 from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he worked with Dave Pritchard. In his thesis work, he made the world’s most precise mass comparisons by learning how to detect and precisely control the relative motion of two single ions confined for weeks to months in a Penning trap consisting of magnetic and electric fields. His work led to the most precise direct test to date of Einstein’s relationship E=mc2 and a novel method for nondestructively monitoring the quantum state of a single molecular ion. He received the 2004 American Physical Society’s DAMOP thesis award for this research.
James did his postdoctoral research with Vladan Vuletic in the MIT-Harvard Center for Ultracold Atoms. There he focused on the interface between ultracold atoms and quantum optics, developing efficient quantum memory and photon generation techniques.
James was appointed an Associate Fellow of JILA in 2006 and a Fellow of JILA in 2013. During his time at JILA, he has studied techniques for applying collective effects for improving precision measurements. His students have learned to nondestructively measure and cancel out the quantum fluctuations in the collective spin state of an ensemble of atoms. By learning how to minimize the effect of quantum noise, Thompson hopes to advance the precise measurements required for atomic clocks and searches for permanent electric dipole moments in atoms and molecules. The Thompson lab’s entangled atoms currently hold the world’s record for reducing the fuzziness inherent to using quantum objects to make measurements.
James has also developed a superradiant laser that can operate even with less than one photon on average inside the cavity. Instead of storing the laser's information inside of the light field, his group demonstrated that the information is almost entirely stored inside of the atoms and that stimulation is driven by the collective emission of the atoms in a process known as superradiance. This optical analog of a hydrogen maser may pave the way for ultranarrow frequency lasers that may advance optical interferometry at solar-system scale distances and the most advanced optical clocks by several orders of magnitude. Thompson was awarded a Department of Commerce Bronze Medal in 2013 for his work on the proof-of-principle superradiant laser. He is currently building a second experiment based on strontium atoms to further these studies.
When not doing physics experiments, James enjoys playing with his girls, reading, and the occasional pick-up game of basketball.