John Hall Biography

Physicist, Scientist(c. 1934–)
American physicist John Hall shared the 2005 Nobel Prize for Physics for his contributions to the development of laser spectroscopy.


John Hall was born August 1934, in Denver, Colorado. Hall's research with Theodor W. Hänsch on measuring optical frequencies led to the pair sharing (also with Roy Glauber) the 2005 Nobel Prize for Physics. Practical applications of the research included improvements in satellite-based navigation systems, such as the global positioning systems (GPS), and advances in the synchronization of computer data networks.

Early Years

John L. Hall was born on August 21, 1934, in Denver, Colorado, to an electrical engineer father and elementary school teacher mother. As a youth, when he wasn’t delving into the hard sciences, he participated in scouting and his church’s youth group. After high school, Hall received a Westinghouse Scholarship to Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University) and earned a B.S. (1956), M.S. (1958) and Ph.D. (1961) in physics. His thesis work involved studying interstitial hydrogen atoms in CaF2 crystals using an electron microwave spin resonance spectrometer, which he made himself.

The Physicist

As a postdoctoral candidate, Hall took a one-year National Research Council Fellowship at the National Bureau of Standards (NBS; later called the National Institute of Standards and Technology, or NIST) in Washington, D.C. Through the NBS, he soon joined the Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics (JILA), an NBS research institute at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He would also become a full-time physicist with NBS at that time, remaining with NIST as a senior scientist until 2004 and with JILA and the University of Colorado to this day.

Hall’s scholarly work has led to 10 patents and more than 200 articles in scientific journals. It has also led to his inclusion in several scientific organizations, such as the National Academy of Sciences (since 1984), and notable awards, such as the American Physical Society's Davisson-Germer Prize in Atomic of Physical Surface Physics (1988) and its Arthur L. Schawlow Prize in Laser Science (1993).

The Nobel and Beyond

Since his first year with JILA, Hall has played a role in a number of major innovations and developments in laser technology, and he also is a major figure in research that set out to measure optical frequencies (the frequencies of visible light) using lasers, for which he took home the 2005 Nobel Prize in Physics, which he shared with Theodor W. Hänsch and Roy Glauber. Around 2000, Hänsch and Hall set out to expand Hänsch’s “optical frequency comb technique,” which is complex enough that only a handful of labs can even house the experiments. The technique involves creating a set of precisely spaced frequency peaks using ultrashort pulses of laser light. The peaks resemble the teeth of a comb and allow for a practical way of obtaining optical frequency measurements with startling accuracy—up to 15 digits. The work has found several important real-world applications, such as improving satellite based navigation systems and improving synchronization functions of computer networks. The research was also employed by other physicists to verify Einstein’s theory of special relativity with precision.

Hall is married and has three children. 

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