When you’ve got one of the world’s biggest man-made disaster zones on your doorstep, it pays to have an Energy Secretary like Steven Chu. Possessor of an enormous brain, he excels at distilling the big picture of climate change into something that just about everyone can understand. It’s all about the small things, he says, exhorting the American people to insulate their homes correctly, and suggesting unorthodox, yet simple ideas like painting roofs white in order to reflect sunlight into space and mitigate global warming. But, as befits this one-time professor of physics at Berkeley, he’s just as comfortable with the large-scale projects, such as harnessing the wind, exploring nuclear power, or even the suggestion that a glucose economy could lessen the world’s reliance on oil.
“From here on in, every day has to be Earth Day,” he told the New York Times last year. And he practices what he preaches. For years he didn’t bother with a car, preferring to cycle everywhere. That stopped when Obama gave him the top job in the Energy Department. “My security detail didn’t want me to be riding my bicycle, or even taking the Metro,” he said, adding sorrowfully what those extra carbon emissions mean to him. “I don’t feel good about it.”
Born 62 years ago in St. Louis, to Chinese parents who came to MIT as grad students, Steven is the youngest of three high-achieving brothers. He followed his older brother, who’d set the school record for the highest cumulative average, to Garden City High in New York, but was only an A-minus student. “By my family’s standards, this was appalling,” he said. Turned down by the Ivy League schools, he went to Rochester University, following this up with a PhD from Berkeley, before starting up at Bell Labs in 1978, where his research on laser cooling won him the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1997. The secret of his success? His parents’ message to him during his formative years. “Read. They didn’t care what we read, as long as we read.”
He’s not just the bookish type though: I always liked to build things, do experiments. I would be given a model set for Christmas and I loved to put them together, so I always asked my parents for erector sets. Working with your hands gives you the spacial awareness that is useful in science.”
Scientific research can be a metaphor for life: “You’re going to be rebuffed and rejected and you’ve got to stand up and convince yourself you were right. Once we convince ourselves, we have to be our worst critics. Once we convince ourselves we’re right, we can convince everyone else we’re right.”
Life in a white coat at Bell Labs: “It was a positively electric atmosphere. A lot of inventions started up around the dining tables there. Something magical was going on at that time.” It was not, Chu says, so easy at first, as he was positively discouraged by his bosses from launching straight into his field of expertise. Instead, he was told to fish around a bit, until he found something that excited him. “Go to the labs, talk to people, explore” [they told him]. “It was devastating. I felt pressure. It’s much easier to have a little problem you’re working on, it’s very cozy. It set the tone for the rest of my life, collaborating with people outside my own expertise.”
Ain’t no party like a Mad Scientists’ Party: “We were there at night, we were there at weekends, we knew what each others’ cars looked like. We partied together. Over a dozen of them are now in the National Academy of Sciences. Everything was exciting and something would come along that wasn’t in my field, and people would jump fields, jump areas, and there was a feeling of excitement about the science, even though we were doing this, it was all right to jump and do that.”
Jump, you say? Chu is mad keen on sports. As well as teaching himself to play tennis in eighth grade by reading a book, he also learned to pole vault using bamboo canes from his local carpet store. He’s also into baseball, swimming, and cycling–the latter, sadly, less so these days.