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JILA Founding Fellow Stephen J. Smith Dead at 92

Published: 06-20-2017
Source: JILA Scientific Communications

Dr. Stephen J. Smith, Founding Fellow of JILA, passed away on June 10, 2017, at the age of 92. He is survived by his wife of 66 years, three of his five sons, and four grandchildren. 

Smith was one of seven NIST scientists who relocated to Boulder, Colorado, in 1962, to found the Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics (JILA) with the University of Colorado Boulder Physics Department. The joint institute was officially launched April 13, 1962. Fifty years later, Smith contributed a delightful introduction entitled "Genesis: Inspiration for an institute" to the web book JILA: The First 50 Years.

In his introduction, Smith recounted how he worked with Lewis Branscomb at the National Bureau of Standards (NBS) to refine Branscomb's research apparatus and institute the use of radiometric standards. The accuracy of their data improved to a level where it provided support for the Chandrasekhar model of the solar visible spectrum.

"Thus, in my mind, was born the field of laboratory astrophysics," Smith recalled more than 50 years later. This was "laboratory work in atomic physics closely related to theoretical issues faced by astronomers. Though it didn't yet have a name, laboratory astrophysics was about to run headlong into the space race."

In 1958, Branscomb and Smith began working with Michael Seaton of University College London and met Richard N. Thomas, a theoretical astrophysicist from Boulder, Colorado. The three began talking about ideas for an institute that would bring together atomic physics, astrophysics, and a theory of energy transfer through the very hot gases in stars. These conversations began just a year after the launch of Sputnik 1. 

By 1960–1961, the search was on for the "right university." After CU Boulder was selected, six NBS scientists, including Smith and Branscomb, were appointed Professors Adjoint at CU. At the time, Branscomb was the Chief of the NBS Atomic Physics Division and Smith led the Atomic Physics Section (1960–1962). 

In 1962, CU President Quigg Newton and Wesley Brittin, Chair of CU's Physics Department, agreed to partner with NBS to form the Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics. The question then became: Who was going to move to Boulder?

"Of course, nothing was going to keep Branscomb and me from coming out to Boulder to launch JILA," Smith remembered. He and his family moved to Boulder in 1962. Smith served as Chair of JILA in 1971–1972. He was Deputy Chief, the Chief of the Laboratory Astrophysics Division of NBS from 1966 to 1977. He was Adjoint Professor of Physics at CU Boulder from 1966 through 1995.

Donations may be made to the JILA Fund "In memory of JILA Fellow Stephen J. Smith."