In 1997, UR alumnus Steven Chu received the Nobel Prize in physics for his work using lasers to trap and cool individual atoms. Now, Chu hopes to use his scientific expertise to help lead the nation to new heights. President Barack Obama named him Secretary of Energy in early December. Chu graduated from UR in 1970 with bachelor’s degrees in mathematics and in physics and went on to earn a doctorate in physics from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1976.
The appointment of the new energy secretary, who has been a UR trustee since 1999, is representative of Obama’s renewed emphasis on science and, specifically, energy research and policy.
On Dec. 15 , 2008, Obama spoke about picking Chu.
‘The scientists at our national labs will have a distinguished peer at the helm,” Obama said of Chu. ‘His appointment should send a signal to all that my administration will value science.”
Over the past five years, Chu’s research has shifted heavily toward sustainable energy sources, and he has become an outspoken advocate for the control of greenhouse gas emissions. Chu is widely known for his unyielding stance against the use of coal power.
‘Coal is my worst nightmare,” he said during an April 2007 presentation in Berkeley.
Chu is also a firm supporter of nuclear power. Although he agrees with Obama, who expressed concerns about the plan to bury nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, he feels that construction of plants should restart before a solution of more sustainable resources is found. Chu maintains that the benefits of nuclear power outweigh the potential risk and will make a push to restart the construction of plants after a 30-year hiatus.
Critics of Obama’s appointment have stated that the scientist lacks political experience, although the president considers this a benefit. Obama regularly cites Chu’s fierce conviction that innovation is as equally important as regulation. Another criticism of Chu is his lack of experience developing nuclear weapons.
The first Nobel laureate to lead the Department of Energy, Chu will oversee the nation’s energy policies as well as the nuclear weapons program. He will head a department with a $25 billion budget and 14,000 employees.
Chu comes from a family of academics. As he mentioned in a biographical sketch for the Nobel Foundation, he was ‘the academic black sheep” of his family. Indeed, Chu, who graduated from Garden City High School on Long Island, was denied admission to many Ivy League schools and instattended UR.
When Chu left Berkeley, he went to AT’T Bell Laboratories, where his work trapping and cooling atoms garnered worldwide fame.
In 1987, he became a professor at Stanford University and served as the chair of the physics department from 1990-93 and 1999-2001.
In 1997, while working as the director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Chu received the Nobel Prize, which he shared with William Phillips and Claude Cohen-Tannoudji.
During his term, Chu will struggle between a desire to bolster the economy with new and efficient technologies, and hindering the economy in doing so. ‘I look forward to being part of the president-elect’s team, which believes we must repair the economy and put us on a path toward sustainable energy,” the acclaimed scientist said.
Here at UR, the department of physics and astronomy is ecstatic with the appointment of Chu.
‘I have nothing but the highest regard for Steve,” Nick Bigelow, the department’s chair, said.
‘What is especially wonderful is that at a time when energy is such an important issue for the nation and the world, we will have a brilliant and resourceful leader in the Department of Energy.
While a student at UR, Chu managed to win the Stoddard Prize from both the department of physics and astronomy and the department of mathematics in his sophomore and senior years, respectively.
In addition to being an academic star, Chu also played the trombone in a concert band at the Eastman School of Music.
As a trustee of the University, Chu served on the Presidential Search Committee along with Bigelow.
‘Steve was clearly an excellent mentor,” Bigelow said. Bigelow, a friend and colleague of the new energy secretary, stressed Chu’s devotion to research and science. ‘Bringing this insight and experience to the president’s cabinet is wonderful,” he continued.
UR President Joel Seligman also praised Obama’s decision.
‘He is the right person to lead our nation’s efforts to create a wiser and more diverse energy base in the 21st century,” he said.
Starr is a member of the Class of 2009.