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High Energy Physicist

March 20, 2011
by Charles Petit

CAA’s 2011 Alumnus of the Year, Steven Chu.

A few Old Blues may harrumph, in a civil sort of way, upon learning that Steven Chu, Ph.D. ’76, the Cal Alumni Association’s 2011 Alumnus of the Year, is not only the current U.S. Secretary of Energy, the recent director of the Ernest O. Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and the bearer of a Cal Ph.D. in physics, but he also spent a big and formative piece of his career at Stanford University.

In fact he was a professor on the farm when he learned in 1997 he’d won a Nobel Prize jointly with Claude Cohen-Tannoudji of France and William D. Phillips of the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology.

So, to settle first things first in a phone call to his office in Washington, D.C., an essential question was put to him promptly. After a “Congratulations, Mr. Secretary,” the topic turned to just where his deeper loyalty lies. Chu said what a terrific honor it is to be Alumnus of the Year and then he told a story. One year Stanford President Gerhard Casper invited him in his box to watch the Big Game. “You don’t turn down an invitation like that,” Chu said. “But I showed up in a blue blazer and my gold Cal tie.”

Good answer. Smart, too—so smart it doesn’t quite answer the question, does it? His ties to both schools are intimate. A brother is on the Stanford faculty. Chu himself helped bring a new level of interdisciplinary research to that university, melding biology and physical sciences. His wife, Jean Fetter Chu, who trained in solar physics at Oxford, was a dean there and was chief of staff to two Stanford presidents before the couple went off to Washington (Chu has two grown sons, Geoffrey and Michael, by former wife Lisa Chu-Thielbar). Chu reportedly met his future wife on a court near that campus during his lifelong pursuit of a good tennis game.

A curiosity aimed in all directions, a near-tireless capacity for long hours, a relentless appetite for solving scientific and other problems—plus an easy grin that balances his drive for perfection—have given Steve Chu’s career a very high arc. Barack Obama drew a number of prominent scientists (including another with deep ties to Cal, science advisor John Holdren) into top positions in his administration, and Chu is easily the most glittering intellect of the bunch.

The short version of his life before government is stellar enough. After earning his Berkeley doctorate in physics in 1976 and another two years of postdoctoral research, Chu was offered a faculty post at Berkeley on condition he season himself elsewhere first—it not being the custom to give tenure to somebody straight from training. So he joined Bell Labs in New Jersey. There he became a department head and an authority on what he called “optical molasses”: using sharply tuned, converging laser beams to cool and trap clouds of atomic gas, slowing the particles from their 2,500 mph speed at room temperature to less than 1 mph. But when Bell Labs suffered budget problems in the mid-’80s it was a good time to find a new slot. In 1987 Stanford lured him to its physics department.

His Nobel was for the laser-cooling and atom-trapping work begun at Bell Labs. At Stanford he moved largely into biological studies, using refined laser techniques to manipulate tiny organelles inside living cells, even stretching DNA molecules out like tiny springs. “The thing about Steve is that he is voracious. He learns faster than anybody I’ve met,” says Paul Alivisatos, a chemist, Berkeley professor, specialist in nanotechnology, and the man who took over at the Berkeley lab as director when Chu left.

When Chu’s former Bell Labs boss, Charles Shank, called him from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, it was to tell him that he was stepping down as director. He urged Chu to apply for his job. By August 2004, Chu was once again back in Berkeley to head the lab on the hill and join the University’s faculty. “It took 26 years,” he says, “but I redeemed that old pledge to Berkeley.”

While at Stanford, Chu had shed his skepticism about the magnitude of human-caused climate change and come to realize that renewable energy including fuels made from plants could ease industries’ addiction to fossil fuels. So at Berkeley, until President Obama called him away, Chu was working to intensify the lab’s prowess in clean energy research, and was anointed a professor of physics, a professor of molecular and cell biology, and the first occupant of the Philomathia Foundation Distinguished Chair in Alternative Energy.

His lab directorship legacy is still unfolding. Earlier directors, especially Shank, had already started broadening the facility’s focus beyond physics to include such things as genomics and energy studies. But Chu “brought focus, and was everywhere—having brown bag lunches with the research groups, dropping in on labs,” said Alivisatos, who had as a young man talked with Chu about a postdoctoral position at Bell Labs. “But he did more than push a diversity of research. He said, many times, we [at LBNL] need to always think big, to address the single greatest technical challenges of the day.” Alivisatos compared the lab pre-Chu to a supersaturated solution that just needs a seed, or crystal, to precipitate a solid. “Steve was our seed.”

Among the physical manifestations of Chu’s tenure is the joint LBNL-Berkeley Helios Project, a five-story solar energy and artificial photosynthesis research center under construction just west of campus. It is part of an archipelago of energy sciences initiatives he fostered, including the Joint BioEnergy Institute in Emeryville and the Energy Biosciences Institute on campus funded by a grant of nearly half a billion dollars by the BP oil company.

That grant, and Chu’s assiduous campaign to win it, served as the backdrop for an ironic moment when Chu as Secretary of Energy had to deal with the deadly failure of the under-engineered Macondo well drilled for BP by the Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico. Chu had the task of overseeing the response by the very company he had helped to woo to Berkeley. He led the government science advisory group, personally demanded imaging of the blown blowout preventer on the seafloor with a gamma ray camera, put top researchers from three national labs (Sandia, Lawrence Livermore, and Los Alamos) on it, and led briefings for the president.

Alivisatos visited Chu in Washington during the crisis’s height. “It was amazing. He dove in. He was talking on the phone to mid-level BP engineers and managers, not just reading reports, doing what Steve does, which is to soak up information faster than anybody I know.” Within weeks Chu seemed to know as much about petroleum engineering “as anybody in the world.”

Chu was born February 28, 1948, in St. Louis. His father was an assistant professor of chemical engineering at Washington University who had left China five years earlier to study at MIT. His mother had emigrated at about the same time, also to MIT, to study economics. Both had come from families with a tradition of academic achievement. Chu’s parents drilled into him the importance of scholarship for its own sake, not just as a stepping stone to a job. They had “a reverence for education,” as Chu recalled in an early 2004 interview. Steve was the middle of three sons—Gilbert two years older, and Morgan younger by two. The family soon moved to Garden City, New York, not far from the Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute that hired his father as a professor. There were just three Chinese-American families in town. Gilbert, now a professor of biochemistry at Stanford Medical School, was an academic star who, according to Chu, had the highest grades in the high school’s history. When Steve showed up in high school the teachers expected another perfect pupil. Instead, his focus sometimes wandered. He got an A-minus average. “By my family’s standards this was appalling,” he explains. Unable to gain entry to an Ivy League school Chu went upstate to the fine but less prestigious University of Rochester near Lake Ontario to study mathematics and physics.

Chu got his bearings quickly. His roommate David Neuffer, another physics major and now a muon collider specialist at the Fermi National Accelerator Lab near Chicago, recalls, “We were very competitive in class. We made a bet in our sophomore year over which of us would win the Nobel Prize first.” When the time came he mailed a personal check for the exact agreed-upon sum: 25 cents.

As graduation neared in 1970 Neuffer and Chu were among a handful of Rochester science graduates who agreed they’d had enough of lake-effect snow. California’s blue skies beckoned. A better rep in physics gave Berkeley’s grad school the nod over Stanford. The Rochesteers found a stately boarding house on Warring Street across from the state school for the blind, now the Clark Kerr Campus. Soon, Chu was organizing softball games with other grad students on the blind school’s fields.

Cal physics professor Eugene Commins, now emeritus, quickly identified Chu as the best student in his thermodynamics and statistical mechanics class. Chu’s questions, he said, were brilliant—penetrating and reflecting intuition. “I took him into my group,” he said. “There wasn’t room, but he was too good to pass up.” Chu regularly describes Commins as the most important professor he ever had, one who worked side by side with his group members more as a colleague than as a professor. “He had one remarkable quality which I wish I could copy,” Chu recalls, “he made all his students feel special.”

Among the group of Commins’s students were others who would later yo-yo between Berkeley and Stanford, including Persis Drell ’79, daughter of noted Stanford physicist Sidney Drell. She is now director of the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center. “Steve was a senior post-doc just getting set to go to Bell Labs, and I worked with him on a laser system,” she recalls. “It was fabulous. He is one of the most driven people in science.” She said Chu sometimes takes credit for teaching her to drink scotch and drive a stick shift. She shared a secret she has not had the heart to tell Chu: “My dad had already showed me how to drink scotch, and drive a stick, too.”

Phil Bucksbaum, M.A. ’78, Ph.D. ’80, a grad student from Harvard who also overlapped with Chu at Berkeley in the late 1970s, today directs the PULSE Institute for Ultrafast Energy Science at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center. He recalls how during their grad school days Chu would lead raiding parties to Berkeley and Livermore National Labs, to scour their bins of surplus equipment for things they could use. “We salvaged our capacitors from Livermore, or built our own,” Bucksbaum remembers. “We built lasers, we built our own flash lamps, our own parabolic reflectors. What Steve was able to do was become quickly a master of all these crafts—electronics, high voltage gear, optics, coatings, glass blowing, dye flow, photochemistry, non-linear optics, you name it. He was as much a superstar at Berkeley as he ever was later.… He told me once he realized he wasn’t really a lot smarter than other people he worked with. But one thing he was sure of. He could work much faster.”

Chu continues to be outwardly modest about his abilities. His Nobel Prize lecture in Stockholm in 1997 is loaded with references to his shortcomings, describing his initial “profound lack of understanding” of the way light can push atoms around. But when at work, he is not, it appears, always one to keep his spoon in his own soup.

Bucksbaum told one last story from grad school days. Around the Christmas holidays he was getting increasingly annoyed. He had his own project and Chu was supposed to be working with Persis Drell. But Chu often came into Bucksbaum’s corner of the lab to kibitz, asking if he could try whatever Bucksbaum was doing, and sometimes telling him he wasn’t doing it right. Bucksbaum complained about it to senior post-grad, David Neuffer. Chu’s old buddy from Rochester looked right at the new guy from Harvard and said, “You don’t understand. It’s not personal. He does that to everybody.”

Charlie Petit ’68 is an award-winning science writer who spent 26 years at the San Francisco Chronicle before going to U.S. News & World Report, where he worked for six years. Since early 2006 he has gathered and commented on science news for the Knight Science Journalism Tracker website. He has a degree in astronomy, served in Vietnam with the 1st Air Cavalry Division’s public information office, and lives in Berkeley.
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