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Obama chooses Nobelist Steven Chu as secretary of energy

| 15 December 2008

President-elect Barack Obama today (Monday, Dec. 15) nominated University of California, Berkeley, physicist and Nobel laureate Steven Chu to be the next secretary of energy.

At a late-afternoon press conference in Chicago, Obama introduced Chu and his energy and environment team, noting that Chu "blazed new trails as a scientist and teacher and administrator, and has recently led the Berkeley national laboratory in pursuing new alternative and renewable energies. Steven is uniquely suited to be our new secretary of energy as we make this pursuit a guiding purpose of the department of energy as well as a national mission."

Obama noted that Chu's appointment should "send a signal to all that my administration will value science, make decisions based on facts and understand that facts require bold action."

Chu, 60, is director of the Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) and the Philomathia Chair in Alternative Energy at UC Berkeley. He shared the 1997 Nobel Prize in Physics for developing laser techniques to cool and trap atoms and molecules.

"President-elect Obama’s choice of Steve Chu as secretary of energy is a precedent-setting appointment," said UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau, a fellow physicist. "Steve has outstanding visionary leadership and great scientific skills. We regard him as our Berkeley messiah for clean alternative energy research. Now, he can be the messiah for the whole country."

Birgeneau noted that LBNL and UC Berkeley have partnered as leaders in energy research, most prominently in the 10-year, $500 million grant from energy company BP to establish the Energy Biosciences Institute (EBI). "Although we will be losing Steve, I am thrilled that the important innovative work that our two institutions have been doing together will now resonate in Washington for the benefit of our nation and, indeed, the world," he said.

Chu has pushed tirelessly for stepped-up research to develop renewable and sustainable sources of energy to lessen the impact of global warming. He spearheaded the Helios project at LBNL to tap sunlight for renewable energy, joined UC Berkeley, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and BP in the EBI to develop biofuels as an alternative to fossil fuels, and leveraged lab expertise to attract the Department of Energy's Joint Bioenergy Institute to make cellulosic biomass a viable source for advanced transportation fuels

video Chu on energy

In a March 2007 interview, Chu discusses the enormity of the climate change problem, federal funding for energy, and the goals of the Energy Biosciences Institute and the Helios project.
3:05 min. video, produced by Roxanne Makasdjian/Media Relations
"While Steve's inspired leadership and scholarship will be greatly missed on campus and up at the lab, we are delighted that he has been asked to take on the crucial position of energy secretary," said Frances Hellman, professor and chair of the UC Berkeley Department of Physics. "Chu, a great scientist and a great communicator, is the right person to lead the country in its efforts against climate change and in the finding of alternative energies and technologies. I commend the Obama team for this ingenious choice and for its affirmation of the importance of scientific research."

Obama also announced today his choice of Lisa Jackson as head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Carol Browner to lead a new council that will coordinate White House policy on energy, climate and the environment, and Nancy Sutley to direct the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

Chu was born in St. Louis, Mo., on Feb. 28, 1948, into a family for which "education … was not merely emphasized, it was our raison d'être," he wrote in his Nobel Prize autobiography. His father, Ju Chin Chu, had come from China in 1943 to study chemical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His mother, Ching Chen Li, came in 1945 to study economics. When they married in 1945, they decided to remain in the United States because of continuing turmoil in China, and they eventually had three sons. Steven, the middle child, was born while his father was teaching at Washington University in St. Louis. The family moved in 1950 to Garden City, N.Y., after Chu's father took a position as a professor at the Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute.

Steve Chu earned undergraduate degrees in physics and mathematics from the University of Rochester in 1970 and his Ph.D. from UC Berkeley in 1976. His thesis, under the mentorship of Eugene Commins, now a professor emeritus of physics, involved laser experiments to search for parity non-conservation in weak atomic interactions.

Chu remained a post-doctoral fellow at UC Berkeley until he accepted a position at AT&T Bell Laboratories in New Jersey in 1978, where he conducted laser work that led to the 1997 Nobel Prize, which he shared with Claude Cohen-Tannoudji and William D. Phillips. The breakthrough that led to the trapping of atoms was the realization that lasers could cool atoms and slow them down enough to be immobilized. Chu and his Bell Laboratories colleagues achieved success in 1985 using six lasers to cool a gas of about a million atoms to two ten-thousandths of a degree above absolute zero.

According to the Nobel Prize Committee, "The new methods of investigation that the Nobel Laureates have developed have contributed greatly to increasing our knowledge of the interplay between radiation and matter and … opened the way to a deeper understanding of the quantum-physical behavior of gases at low temperatures."

In 1987, Chu joined Stanford University as a professor in the physics and applied physics departments, where he also ventured into polymer physics and biology. He was a highly decorated scientist, teacher and administrator there until he accepted the directorship of LBNL in August 2004. At the same time, he joined the UC Berkeley physics department and the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology. Chu was recently appointed to the Philomathia Chair in Alternative Energy at UC Berkeley. Founded by the Chung Brothers who originated from Hong Kong, the Philomathia Foundation seeks innovative means to promote the betterment of humankind through a commitment to education and research.

Chu has published more than 220 scientific papers and is a fellow or member of the world’s leading scientific academies. He serves on numerous boards including the Hewlett Foundation, the University of Rochester, and the executive committee of the National Academies’ Board on Physics and Astronomy. He has been an advisor to the directors of the National Institutes of Health and the National Nuclear Security Agency.

He has been awarded 10 honorary degrees and has held numerous visiting lectureships at schools including Harvard University, Cambridge University, Oxford University, and the Collège de France.

Chu is married to Jean Chu, who was trained as a physicist at Oxford University and was formerly Stanford’s dean of admissions and the university president’s chief of staff. He has two grown sons, Geoffrey and Michael.