Steven Chu, Secretary of Energy: The Nobel Story

Secretary of Energy, Steven Chu

Secretary of Energy, Steven Chu. Source: Lawrence Berkeley Nat'l. Lab

If you were like me, you spent most of Tuesday working, only to return home and sit glued to your TV watching the inauguration  on your DVR.  Yes, Obama is president.  Which also means, yes, we again have people in government who put their faith in Science.

One of those people is Steven Chu, the just affirmed Secretary of Energy.  He’s got his work cut out for him.  Not only has Obama charged him with reducing our dependence on foreign oil, but he has to figure out how to curb greenhouse gasses while making our country more energy efficient.  And if he can turn every car into a plug-in, call it icing on the cake.

Of course, like everyone else on Obama’s cabinet, Chu has serious street cred.

Not only was he a professor of physics at Stanford, but he ran the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory where they do serious rocket science (and other amazing things).  But perhaps most notable is his receipt of the Nobel prize just 10 years prior.

The prize was for his work on discovering and creating optical tweezers to cool and hold atoms and molecules in place so they can be studied and observed.  Such as, DNA.  Or, an enzyme in the process of utilizing a single molecule of ATP.  Cool stuff.

What’s I find most intriguing is his collaborative approach.  While not unusual in academia, often the drumbeat to publish can feel pretty cut-throat.  And that’s putting it mildly.  Which is why I was fascinated by Chu’s account of how the Nobel Prize came to be.  He protrays himself as a man was  eager to learn, humbled by his discovery, but does not miss to remark on each and every shortcoming, mistake, and area of ignorance.

It’s a good read if you have a chance.  You can either find the Review of Modern Physics, 70, 685 – 706 (1998) or just download it here (also available on Google).  By the end, I think you’ll agree there’s light to be found at the end of this tunnel.

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