December 15, 2008
Nobelist a novel pick for energy
Chu brings colorful science background and work on climate change to post
By DAVID IVANOVICH Copyright 2008 Houston Chronicle Washington Bureau
Dec. 15, 2008, 11:40PM
NICHOLAS KAMM AFP/GETTY IMAGES
He won a share of the Nobel Prize in physics for trapping atoms.
WASHINGTON — Back in high school, Steven Chu constructed a pendulum to measure gravity. He later developed a method to trap atoms with laser light, which earned him a share of the Nobel Prize in physics. And as head of one of the U.S. national laboratories, he encouraged work on climate change and renewable energy.
On Monday, President-elect Barack Obama formally announced he would nominate this 60-year-old scientist to become the nation's next energy secretary.
Chu's appointment, Obama said in a Chicago news conference, will send "a signal to all that my administration will value science."
Obama went public with his plans for Chu as he rolled out his energy and environment team, which also includes former New Jersey environmental regulator Lisa Jackson to lead the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Los Angeles' energy and environmental head Nancy Sutley to run the Council for Environmental Quality and former EPA Administrator Carol Browner to serve as an overall energy ''czar."
Later this week, Obama is expected to name the last key member of that team — Democratic Sen. Ken Salazar of Colorado for Interior Secretary, a senior Democrat said.
Chu, as director of the Energy Department's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, has been on "the cutting edge of our nation's efforts to develop new and cleaner forms of energy," Obama said.
Energy a priority
Chu acknowledged that many believe the new administration's first priority must be to help the troubled economy, but noted energy is a priority as well. "We must repair the economy and put us on a path forward toward sustainable energy," he said.
Chu has said "the greatest challenge facing science" is climate change and finding renewable energy sources that won't exacerbate global warming.
And in the highly partisan world of energy politics, Chu, as a scientist, might have credibility that a political figure wouldn't, said former Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham.
"People have lost confidence in what political figures are saying about energy," Abraham said. "They may pay more attention to the views of a scholar and Nobel winner when he gets up says 'We need to do A, B and C.' "
The son of Chinese immigrants, Chu was born in St. Louis and grew up in Garden City, N.Y., near Brooklyn Polytechnic, where his father taught.
"There were only two other Chinese families in this town of 25,000," Chu wrote in an autobiography posted on the Nobel Prize Web site. But his parents liked the school system.
As a child, he built homemade rockets, taught himself how to play tennis by reading a book and learned to pole vault using bamboo poles obtained from a local carpet store.
His high school pendulum project paid dividends 25 years later. "I was to develop a refined version of this measurement using laser cooled atoms in an atomic fountain interferometer," Chu wrote.
Rejected by the Ivy League schools for what he called his "lackluster A-" average in high school, Chu attended the University of Rochester. There he was exposed to Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman's writings, which Chu found "mesmerizing and inspirational."
Chu earned degrees in physics and mathematics. He then earned a doctorate in physics from the University of California, Berkeley.
In 1978, Chu joined Bell Laboratories, where in his first annual review he was told "not to be content with anything less than 'starting a new field.' "
In 1983, he became head of the Quantum Electronics Research Department in Holmdel, N.J. Chu then began work on a method to trap atoms with laser light. "I began to realize the way to hold on to atoms with light was to first get them very cold," Chu said.
In 1997, he shared the Nobel Prize in recognition of that work. It led to more accurate atomic clocks, among other applications.
Chu left Bell Laboratories to teach at Stanford University. And four years ago, he was pegged to run the Berkeley Lab.
Chu's goal there has been to make the lab a world leader in alternative and renewable energy research, particularly with the development of carbon-neutral energy sources. Chu brought in fellow scientist William Collins to head the lab's climate sciences department.
Collins' team has been focused on creating climate models that would give scientists insights on the ramifications of an abrupt change in climate — a breakup of Antarctic ice, say, or changes in vegetation at higher altitudes.
As the nation develops new renewable energy sources, Collins said, scientists at the lab want to understand what the climate ramifications of those new fuels might be.
"We really believe that climate and energy are inextricably linked, and we think that advances in our methods of energy production will lead to reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and help improve our climate," Collins said.
Chu would oversee a department with a budget of more than $23 billion and more than 100,000 employees and contractors. His nomination requires Senate confirmation.
Glenn English, president of the Arlington, Va.-based National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, said the Chu nomination indicates Obama is serious about dealing with climate change.
Back to the News Headlines