Even as the United States' top energy official, R&D Magazine’s 2011 Scientist of the Year Steven Chu keeps science close to home.
After five years as director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Steven Chu was appointed Secretary of Energy in early 2009. Photo: Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory
In 1978, when a young physicist named Steven Chu arrived in Holmdel, N.J., to begin his new job doing research work for AT&T, he was shocked to discover he had no specific job description. In fact, he was told to do whatever he wanted, as long as it wasn't something really expensive, like high-energy physics.
Recently, the same Steven Chu faced sharp questioning about the process solar panel manufacturer Solyndra procured a large loan guarantee from the U.S. Department of Energy, then filed for bankruptcy two years later. Chu, the researcher, was now Chu, Secretary of Energy. He was now a bureaucrat, and he likely felt far, far away from his "random walk" in science at Bell Laboratories.
When the editors of R&D Magazine make their selection for the year's top individual honor, they look to active researchers who have, over their careers, made, and continue to make, a deep and lasting impact on the world through science. At first glance, Chu's selection is unusual. Unlike most Scientists of the Year, Chu has delved into a wide variety of disciplines in the course of his career, never becoming too specialized in any one field. And unlike almost all previous Scientists of the Year, he is now in a political post, albeit one that oversees a lot of R&D.
Chu, 63, has certainly made a lasting impact on science, and his Nobel Prize in Physics is a testament to that. Among his many accomplishments, he has resolved long-standing questions about Maxwell's electromagnetic laws, led the team that pioneered the first method for trapping and holding atoms, and made numerous discoveries and advances in the field of biophysics.
Neither has Chu shed his research mantle. Even as he serves as administrator of a Cabinet-level organization with 16,000 employees and a $24 billion budget, he is still publishing scientific papers. He is the first to admit that his current schedule has relegated research to more of a hobby, but his ability to contribute to three papers since 2009 highlights his passion for scientific thought.
Most tellingly, though, Chu approaches his job as a scientist first. Throughout his career, Chu has bucked any temptation to specialize or settle down by embarking on different research roads. As energy secretary, he has kept scientific thought alive even as political pressure mounts.
The right sort of science
To judge from his family, Chu was destined for great academic achievements. His father, a Chinese immigrant, studied chemical engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and retired as a member of Taiwan's most distinguished scholarly society, Academica Sinica. His mother studied economics, also at MIT. His two brothers and four cousins collected a law degree, three medical doctor certificates, and four doctorates.
In his younger years, however, at Garden City High School on Long Island, N.Y., Chu's future as a scientist was uncertain. He confesses he was not a great student, but he did earn A's and gravitate toward science and math topics. Despite finding his way later in his college years, he has often described himself the "black sheep" of the family.
According to his autobiography, Chu treated his schoolwork like a chore, and it showed in academic performance that lagged behind his older brother. But he liked sports and enjoyed his erector set. Later, he found chemistry.
Chu recalls that he and a friend experimented with home-made rockets, funded by money his parents gave him for lunch at school. This became a business during one summer, as they tested the neighbors' soil for acidity and missing nutrients.
Perhaps the biggest influence on his future was a high school physics teacher, Thomas Miner, who encouraged his students to learn physics through experimentation and building things. It was also a wake-up call and a shot of discipline for Chu.
In comments to Teach.gov given in 2010, Chu recalled, "In the 12th grade there was a final exam and I kind of flubbed the question. He had written in the margin 'I'm disappointed.'"
He was challenged by Miner in ways that he hadn't been before.
"He wasn't teaching us fact, he was actually trying to teach us a learning process. Learning whether you understand something or not was probably the most important thing I began to learn in his class," said Chu.
Chu went on to the University of Rochester (N.Y.) to become a theoretical physicist. He wasn't happy, however, unless he was in the laboratory. Chu took to experimentation like a fish to water. He was constantly designing new experiments and testing new ideas. His thesis and postdoctoral work at University of California, Berkeley dealt with the observation of parity non-conservation in atomic transitions.
"When I first began to study physics, it was known that magnetic and electric forces were different manifestations of the same force. By the time I was a graduate student, electromagnetic and nuclear forces responsible for radioactive decay were unified and now added to the work of Maxwell, a century earlier," said Chu in a UC Berkeley discussion about his life.
His graduate and doctoral thesis and postdoctoral work were spent testing and validating this theory. Published in 1978, it was one of the earliest atomic physics confirmations of the Weinberg-Salam-Glashow theory that unifies the weak and electromagnetic forces.
Eager to broaden his horizons outside of campus, Chu arrived at Bell Labs in 1978. He didn't know what to expect. What he found was both exciting and disconcerting. He was among a small group of researchers who were given the freedom to explore any sort of research project they wanted. Chu's supervisor, however, did warn him against any expensive high-energy physics experiments. The shareholders at Bell, he was told, might not be happy. Unfortunately, Chu's doctoral thesis had addressed a fundamental problem in high-energy physics.
"This was a devastating experience for me. On the one hand you have someone telling me to do whatever I wanted to do. On the other hand, I'm told not to do what I've been doing," said Chu.
He took the advice and began experimenting anew. But even more importantly, he began asking people whether or not his newest brainstorms were worth exploring. He says this approach set the tone for what he’s done for the rest of his life, which is to collaborate with others.
"Scientific progress is seldom made by a lone explorer, working in seclusion," said Chu. A common misconception about scientists is that they go to school, take classes, study, and after years and years of study, they learn everything there is to know in a narrow sub-field. That becomes their career. This, he said, is rare.
"That is a form, but it's rarely taken," said Chu.
It's especially untrue for the way Chu approaches science. A dozen years ago, after spending much of his career in particle physics, he explored an interest in biology. He picked up a 1,500-page tome about biology and made it to page 150 before realizing he was forgetting the material as fast as he read it. Surrounded by top biologists at Stanford University, he realized he could go to them. He read articles in publications like Scientific American, got an idea for a research project, and bounced it off biologists.
"Sometimes they would say 'Oh no, that's not worth it', or 'Oh no, that's been done before'. But sometimes they would say that's really interesting, or that's the central problem to biology," said Chu.
Energy Secretary Steven Chu examines a target for the National Ignition Facility, being held by NIF director Ed Moses. Once a director of nearby Lawrence Berkeley National
Experimentation with lasers, and their effects at the atomic scale, clearly played a special role in Chu's research career, and after his work at UC Berkeley, he was eager to explore more of these ideas at Bell Labs. He and Allen Mills did the first laser spectroscopy of positronium, the bound state of an electron and positron in 1982. They also measured the energy level splitting of that atom to an accuracy of a few parts per billion and made the first measurement of the corresponding transition in muonium, an atom consisting of muon+ and an electron. He also worked on exciton energy transfer in solids and picosecond pulse propagation in solids.
His inclination to "play" with equipment in the laboratory was an advantage in the open-source, cross-disciplinary research environment at Bell Labs. He was part of a few dozen people tasked with doing "something" important. What that was, was never truly delineated, but he worked there at night and on the weekends. It was a fertile environment. Six of the researchers there at the time eventually got Nobel Prizes. A dozen are now in the National Academy of Sciences.
Trapping atoms for the first time
While still at Bell Labs, Chu began working specifically on the most fundamental atom, consisting of an electron and its antiparticle. He also worked on the motion of energy in disordered materials. It was during that time that he led the research group that demonstrated the technique for slowing down atoms using laser light.
"The conventional wisdom at that time was first you hold the atom with light and then you make it cold so you can do what you want with it," said Chu. "My idea was to reverse this by cooling the atom first, then grabbing it with light."
He and his co-workers employed six laser beams opposed in pairs and arranged in three directions at right angles to each other. They cooled the atoms to near absolute zero, creating an "optical molasses". Using optical tweezer technology pioneered by Arthur Ashkin, they "trapped" an atom for the first time.
"Atoms and molecules at room temperature move at the speed of a supersonic jet plane," said Chu. "We were able to slow them down to the speed of a walking ant. With atoms moving that slowly, we showed how to hold onto them with a single-focused laser beam and move them at will."
In 1987, when he left Bell Labs to teach physics at Stanford, he and others showed how this technology could be used to hold and manipulate individual DNA molecules. That demonstration led him into polymer physics, biophysics, and biology.
"New applications of these and other laser-cooling and trapping methods are still being discovered a quarter of a century later," said Chu.
The atom trapping breakthrough has led to a variety of physics milestones, including atomic clocks and Bose-Einstein condensates that have informed high-temperature superconductor research. Chu's efforts earned him a Nobel Prize in 1997.
Chu founded a research group at Stanford and continued his particle physics work, overturning a theory on the minimum temperature for multi-level atoms and demonstrating the first atomic fountain. He and his group also developed a new atom interferometer that exceeded the accuracy of the most accurate commercial inertial sensors.
Chu also developed methods to simultaneously visualize and manipulate single bio-molecules. Using this new technique, his group has used single DNA molecules to address a number of problems in polymer science. They have also applied methods such as fluorescence energy transfer, and atomic force microscope methods to study the protein and RNA folding, translation, and other enzyme activity at the level of individual bio-molecules. His group continues this work to this day.
In addition to work in atomic physics, he established the Bio-X program, which focuses on interdisciplinary research in biology and medicine. He also added polymer physics to his repertoire.
After becoming the sixth director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in 2004, Chu added energy research to his fields of interest, and guided the laboratory to a leadership position in biofuels and solar energy technologies. During this time, he began to advocate for increased research in alternative energy and nuclear power, and his leadership in this area reshaped the direction of research at Berkeley Lab and helped, in part, to prompt his selection for secretary of energy position. Applying his analytical approach to large-scale energy problems, he made sweeping proposals, including a low-carbon "glucose" economy, and efforts to help manage global temperatures through reflection and absorption of sunlight.
Preaching the gospel of innovation
Chu's accomplishments have made him a public figure, but in Taiwan, where scientists are often publicly revered more than movie stars and sports figures, Chu is reportedly second only to actor Leonardo di Caprio in the echelon of celebrity royalty. In the U.S., he earned some fame as the only Nobel-winning, and one of the few actively practicing, scientists to be named secretary of energy. Most recently, of course, his celebrity has been both clouded and magnified over the failure of Solyndra.
His appearances at federal subcommittee hearings are a jarring contrast to the typical picture of Chu, a grinning and youthful researcher surrounded by high-energy laser equipment in the laboratory. And to hear him speak, he doesn't get much enjoyment from the political aspects of his job. Rather, he views them as a necessary step on the path to help his country gain some measure of control over its energy future.
"While I never wondered about or even imagined a career as the administrator of a 4,000-person organization, I was willing to leave Stanford and become the director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory because of my increasing concern about climate change," said Chu.
As energy secretary, he has added to his agenda an emphasis on America's global technological competitiveness. Chu is self-deprecating when describing his ascent in the DOE, referring to it as his "downward spiral". But he has become an enormously influential voice in Washington.
Keeping a toe in the research waters
Washington is a far different world than the now-empty research rooms at Bell Labs. Perhaps Chu's biggest challenge is keeping himself as fresh and engaged in the process of discovery as he was during his years as a full-time scientist. Part of his way of dealing with the shift is to constantly remind the public—and others in Washington—what science can and can't do.
"Science is about trying to make sense of the natural world and experiments are the final arbitrator of any scientific debate," said Chu. "The Second Law of Thermodynamics cannot be repealed by a majority vote in Congress."
At the same time, he is a strong believer in the role of federal government in helping to address some of science's most arduous tasks, such as getting to the bottom of the Earth's climate patterns, or finally finding an effective alternative to fossil fuels.
When he left Berkeley Lab to become energy secretary, he still had a sizable group of post-doctorates and graduate students. They are continuing many of the same research paths that Chu pursued before he left, and with his input a number of publications have been made.
"Over the past three years I've discovered that I'm disposable as a mentor," he said. Nevertheless, his own research efforts continue and he has published papers that explore adhesion physics at the molecular level, pioneered a new form of subnanometer live cell optical microscopy, and made precision measurements of the gravitational redshift by the interference of matter waves.
"I never imagined that working on a scientific manuscript and thinking about data and new research directions would become a way of recharging my batteries," Chu said. "I discovered that my job for the past 40 years, was my favorite hobby. How lucky can you get?"