The Institute for Theoretical Atomic, Molecular and Optical Physics was established in November 1988 at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in order to address the critical shortage of theorists in atomic and molecular physics at major universities throughout the nation. The objectives of the Institute were and are:

  • Attracting and training scientists of the highest quality in theoretical AMO Physics;
  • Maintaining an active visitors program to bring senior researchers together for varying lengths of time for scientific collaboration;
  • Establishing a strong post-doctoral fellowship program as a source of potential University faculty.

We are in a time of great intellectual excitement in atomic and molecular physics, stimulated in part by the use of lasers, of synchrotron radiation, of neutral and ion traps, and of particle beams in experiments of quite remarkable ingenuity, and in part by a growing recognition that atomic and molecular physics is a uniquely valuable discipline, rich in the diversity of its phenomena, in which general concepts about the existence and nature of structures can be explored quantitatively. In many instances, a direct confrontation with experiment can be carried out, which is impeded neither by uncertainties in the fundamental interactions nor by the lack of numerical precision in the theoretical predictions. Access to enhanced computer power has greatly enlarged the areas of significant activity in atomic and molecular physics as numerical experiments on many-body systems have become practicable, which will lead surely to the discovery of new kinds of structural features and to the delineation of the underlying laws that govern them. For theoretical atomic and molecular physics, a revolution is in progress. Unfortunately, this is occurring at a time in which almost no graduate students are being trained in theoretical AMO physics in any of the departments of physics of those major research universities that have been historically the principal sources of university faculty in the U.S.

The original proposal for the creation of the Institute described the concern of the atomic and molecular community regarding "the grave shortage of young theorists" in atomic and molecular physics. This shortage was documented in the report of the NAS Committee on Atomic and Molecular Science (chaired by Lloyd Armstrong), "The State of Theoretical Atomic, Molecular and Optical Sciences in the United States" (National Academy Press, 1987). The original proposal states further: "Some of the effects of the low level of activity in theoretical atomic and molecular physics are already apparent in the inadequate interpretations offered in many experimental papers and their call for theoretical studies, and in the termination of experimental programs because of the lack of theoretical calculations that would raise significant further questions and point to new directions. Without the development, application and challenge of new theoretical ideas, atomic and molecular physics will eventually be reduced to a description of experimental observations of physical events, supported only because of its intimate connections to technology."

The Academy report by the Armstrong Committee mentioned amongst the measures that might be taken to strengthen theoretical AMO physics the formation of an institute and listed several criteria such an institute should satisfy: increasing the interactions of AMO theorists and experimenters and fostering interdisciplinary interactions; bringing together a critical mass of innovative researchers who can together more effectively tackle large problems; association with a university in order to bring graduate students into the field. ITAMP was created with these criteria in mind.

In 2002 the name of the Institute was changed to the Institute for Theoretical Atomic, Molecular and Optical Physics. The acronym ITAMP, however, was retained because of its widespread recognition.