Steven Chu life and biography

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Steven Chu biography

Date of birth : 1948-02-28
Date of death : -
Birthplace : St. Louis, Missouri U.S.
Nationality : American
Category : Politics
Last modified : 2022-02-28
Credited as : Politician, U.S. Secretary of Energy, Obama administration

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Steven Chu born February 28, 1948 in St. Louis, Missouri, United States is an American politician and U.S. Secretary of Energy . Chu is a vocal advocate for more research into renewable energy and nuclear power, arguing that a shift away from fossil fuels is essential to combating climate change. He has conceived of a global "glucose economy", a form of a low-carbon economy, in which glucose from tropical plants is shipped around like oil is today. On February 22, 2019, Chu began a one-year term as president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Steven Chu, the U.S. Secretary of Energy and a winner of the 1997 Nobel Prize in Physics, has taken his reputation as a scientific innovator to the nation's capital to push for new environmental policies and breakthroughs in the search for energy. A remarkably creative thinker, Chu discovered a way to trap atoms in extreme cold that has led to experimental breakthroughs and the production of atomic clocks. In the mid-2000s, Chu directed a major government science lab and used the position as a platform to advocate new, environmentally friendly energy technologies. As a top Obama Administration official, he is pressing Congress and foreign governments to create policies that limit greenhouse gases and combat climate change.

Chu was born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1948. His parents were Chinese students who decided to remain in the United States because of the civil war in China. His father, Ju Chin Chu, was a chemical engineer who was teaching at Washington University when his son was born. The family settled in Garden City, on Long Island near New York City, after the Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute hired Chu's father as a professor. His mother, Ching Chen Li, had studied economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Nearly every member of the Chu family was an extremely accomplished academic. For years, Chu felt he could not measure up to them. "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," he wrote in an autobiographical essay after winning the Nobel Prize. "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."

Rejected by Ivy League schools, Chu was accepted at the University of Rochester in New York, where he studied theoretical physics. He went on to graduate studies in physics at the University of California at Berkeley, earning his Ph.D. in 1976 and remaining there as a postdoctoral fellow until 1978. That fall, he took a job at Bell Laboratories, AT&T's renowned center for technical research. Chu began experimenting with lasers, modifying standard equipment to increase its power. While at Bell Labs, he and a colleague succeeded at an extremely difficult experiment: they obtained a precise measurement of the energy levels of positronium, a simple atom that exists only for a fraction of a second at a time.

Bell Labs named Chu the head of its quantum electronics research department in 1983. While at Bell, he designed a new, more powerful type of electron spectrometer. He also began the work that would later win him the Nobel Prize. Chu began talking with a colleague, Arthur Ashkin, who had discovered that microscopic particles would stick to the most intense parts of laser beams in a manner similar to static electricity. Ashkin hoped to also trap atoms, but they typically traveled at several thousand miles per hour, making the task nearly impossible. Chu figured out how to do it.

"I began to realize the way to hold onto atoms with light was to first get them very cold," Chu wrote in his autobiographical essay. In 1985, Chu and his Bell Labs co-workers cooled some atoms to just above absolute zero by firing laser beams at them from several directions. The lasers slowed the atoms' speed to inches per second, allowing the lasers to trap them. Such atom traps are now used in several types of physics experiments and are used to create atomic clocks, which keep time with great precision.

When Chu left Bell Labs to teach at Stanford University in 1987, he kept working on laser cooling and atom trapping. Colleagues described him as having the abilities to anticipate new, emerging areas of science and to actually visualize the interactions of atoms in his head, rather than rely on mathematical formulas. Rather than focus on one specialty, though, Chu engaged in creative experiments involving atoms and also ventured into polymer science, chemistry, and biology.

"I'm drawn towards the wilder, science-fiction-type stuff," Chu told James Glanz of the New York Times. "It's much more fun for me to learn completely new things than it is to sort of ice the cake," he said. "Well, that's part of the reason one is a scientist. It's not to just crawl into a little corner of some field and go to all of the meetings that all 50 of you in the world go to. 'Oh, this person twiddled that and look what happened.' After a while it becomes a little rococo, if you know what I mean."

In 1997, Chu was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics, along with Claude Cohen-Tannoudji and William Daniel Phillips, for their work on atom cooling and trapping. He shared the award with two other scientists who had expanded upon his 1985 breakthrough. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences praised Chu and the co-winners by saying their discoveries had led to new scientific techniques that have "contributed greatly to increasing our knowledge of the interplay between radiation and matter."

By then, Chu was a scientific star, known for his dazzling, wide-ranging intellect. He was incredibly popular in Taiwan, where accomplished scientists are treated as celebrities. Reporters and cameramen often followed him in public when he visited Taiwan, intrigued by his Chinese heritage, his ability to speak basic Chinese, and his membership in the Taiwanese scholarly organization Academica Sinica.

After 17 years at Stanford, Chu was named director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in 2004, which is owned by the U.S. Department of Energy and operated by the University of California. The new job put Chu in charge of 4,000 employees and a $650 million budget. Before Chu took over, the laboratory focused on basic science: biology, chemistry, and physics. Chu gave the lab a new goal: working on new sources of energy, such as advanced biofuels (fuel distilled from plants) and solar energy research. Using the credibility that his Nobel Prize gave him, Chu became a public advocate of research to replace fossil fuels, arguing that it was one of the most important scientific challenges of the twenty-first century.

For instance, in 2007, Chu co-chaired an international committee of energy experts that warned the world's nations to move away from coal and other fossil fuels in order to fight global warming. The committee's report called on governments to establish a price for emitting greenhouse gases and to at least double their research on new forms of energy. Chu warned that the world's energy development was not sustainable otherwise. "Sustainable energy is the equivalent of the U.S. moon shot," Dr. Chu said, as quoted by Andrew C. Revkin of the New York Times. Funding of the magnitude spent on the Apollo moon landings of the 1960s and 1970s, Chu said, "would reveal a lot of breakthroughs in energy technologies, efficiency technologies, and new forms of energy."

Winning the Nobel, running a large government lab, and advocating an effort against global warming gave Chu an unusual resume. It qualified him for an unusual job opportunity: in December of 2008, U.S. President-Elect Barack Obama nominated Chu as the next secretary of energy. Chu was the first Nobel laureate to be nominated for a cabinet position. (Henry Kissinger, who served in the Nixon and Ford administrations, won the Nobel Peace Prize while in government service.)

Obama's appointment of Chu reflected his interest in developing a practical climate-change policy. "[Chu's] experience seems to dovetail perfectly with the president-elect's commitment to bringing new energy technology to market in a timely fashion," Scott Segal, director of the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, told John M. Broder of the New York Times. However, political observers noted that Chu had no experience dealing with the Department of Energy's largest job: manufacturing and maintaining nuclear weapons.

Adjusting to politics was not easy for Chu. In early 2009, for instance, U.S. Senator John McCain aggressively questioned him during a Senate committee hearing. McCain repeatedly asked Chu why the Obama Administration planned to suspend an effort to bury nuclear waste below Yucca Mountain in Nevada. Also, Chu, like several other Cabinet secretaries, struggled to quickly spend money from an economic stimulus package in early 2009, since several high-level positions in his department were not yet filled.

"I didn't appreciate how much of a public figure you become," Chu said, according to Broder of the New York Times. The need for certainty in his public statements required an adjustment for Chu, who was used to science's hypotheses and experiments. "I can't speculate out loud anymore. Everything I say is taken with total seriousness."

Some political observers, noting Chu's early struggles, suggested he was in over his head. An energy expert for a leading business group said others in the Obama Administration were actually making energy and climate change policy, not Chu. Dan Leistikow, the Energy Department's director of public affairs, responded that Chu deserved time to get used to his new job. "A Nobel scientist is more likely to figure out Washington than a career politician is to figure out how to deal with carbon sequestration," Leistikow told Broder of the New York Times.

Soon after taking office, Chu told reporters that providing for the world's future energy needs without harming the climate would require three major breakthroughs that would be worthy of Nobel Prizes. Solar power would have to become five times more effective, electric batteries would have to improve substantially, and new crops that could be made into fuel would have to be discovered and efficiently processed. He expressed optimism about the challenges. "I think science and technology can generate much better choices," Chu told Broder and Matthew L. Wald of the New York Times. "It has, consistently, over hundreds and hundreds of years." In May of 2009, Chu suspended government research on cars run on hydrogen fuel cells, arguing they would not produce technological breakthroughs to make them practical for at least ten years or more. Instead, Chu said, he would likely revive a plan to invest government money in a prototype power plant that would turn coal into gas and pump the carbon dioxide it produced into the ground so that it did not contribute to global warming.

With Obama as president, the U.S. Congress began debating national limits on the emission of greenhouse gases. Chu, like Obama, spoke in favor of a cap-and-trade system, which would limit emissions but allow businesses to sell and trade emission permits. He noted that other options existed, such as a tax on carbon emissions. In April of 2009, he testified before a House of Representatives committee that was considering climate change legislation. Chu said that a cap-and-trade bill the committee was examining would accomplish the Obama Administration's goals, but he stopped short of endorsing it.

In July of 2009, in a speech at China's top science university, Chu argued that China should also limit its greenhouse gas emissions. He warned that global warming could cause sea levels to rise, displacing more people in China than in any other country besides Bangladesh. He made the same argument to the Chinese that he has often made in the United States. "We're not talking about their giving up prosperity; we're talking about their using energy in a more efficient way," Chu told Keith Bradsher of the New York Times.


Born February 28, 1948, in St. Louis, Missouri; son of Ju Chin Chu (a chemical engineer) and Ching Chen Li; married Jean (a university administrator); children: Geoffrey, Michael (from first marriage). Education: University of Rochester, A.B. and B.S., 1970; University of California at Berkeley, Ph.D., 1976. Addresses: Office--U.S. Department of Energy, 1000 Independence Ave., SW, Washington, DC, 20585.


Broida Prize for Laser Spectroscopy, American Physical Society, 1987; Richtmyer Memorial Prize Lecture, American Physical Society and American Association of Physics Teachers, 1990; co-winner of King Faisal International Prize for Science, King Faisal Foundation, 1993; Arthur Schawlow Prize for Laser Science, American Physical Society, 1994; William F. Meggers Award for Spectroscopy, Optical Society of America, 1994; Science for Art Prize, LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton, 1995; Humboldt Senior Scientist Award, Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, 1995, co-recipient, Nobel Prize in Physics, Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, 1997.


Postdoctoral fellow, University of California at Berkeley, 1976-78; technical staff member, AT&T, 1978-83; head of quantum electronic department, AT&T Bell Laboratories, 1983-87; physics professor, Stanford University, 1987-2004; named member of the National Academy of Sciences, 1993; named member of the Academia Sinica, 1994; physics professor, University of California at Berkeley, 2004-08; director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, 2004-08; U.S. Secretary of Energy, 2009--.

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