Since 2004, physicist Steven Chu has been on indefinite leave from Stanford University so that he might head Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Looks like Stanford will have to hold his slot a bit longer. This afternoon the Associated Press reported that Barack Obama has selected Chu to become the next Energy Secretary. If this is formally confirmed, the next task for Chu, a Missouri native, will be finding digs for his family in the Washington, D.C. area.
The soft-spoken scientist is a heavyweight. For developing a new technique to laser cool and trap atoms, Chu shared the 1997 Nobel Prize in physics. However, his passion in recent years has become a search for the ever-more-parsimonious use of energy. He’s been exploring the development of not only new technologies but also novel social and economic policies that will lead businesses and the public to accomplish more while using far fewer resources.
In other words, he’ll come to Washington with a host of ideas — and a commitment to see that science will underpin DOE’s decision making and research priorities. Indeed, just three months ago Chu was stumping on the Hill about the need to bolster federal research investments in energy — investments that he said should be grounded on science. He’ll now get the unparalleled opportunity to try and practice what he preached.
But this prof will also get a quick lesson in hardball politics. Good ideas aren’t enough to implement good policies. Neither is being smart. Let’s hope he’s a quick study and disarms lawmakers the way he charms the public. He speaks simply, tries to compel with facts, and knows the value of a well chosen anecdote, not to mention self-deprecating wit.
He’s also fairly well rounded — hardly the total geek that so many people expect of the intellectual elite. And he appears quite humble. Check out his autobiography on the Nobel site, for instance, where he notes that in a “family of accomplished scholars, I was to become the academic black sheep. I performed adequately at school, but in comparison to my older brother, who set the record for the highest cumulative average for our high school, my performance was decidedly mediocre.” Yeah, I bet.
“Education in my family was not merely emphasized,” he notes, “it was our raison d'être. Virtually all of our aunts and uncles had Ph.D.'s in science or engineering, and it was taken for granted that the next generation of Chu's were to follow the family tradition. When the dust had settled, my two brothers and four cousins collected three MDs, four Ph.D.s and a law degree. I could manage only a single advanced degree.”
And now a Cabinet post. I’d say his family continues to have plenty to be proud of.
For a capsule summary of Chu's views — including his call for the develoment of something akin to Apollo program for energy — see my Q&A with him that ran in October.