Steven Chu, PhD

Nobel Conference 50
Oct. 7 & 8, 2014

Physicist Steven Chu, PhD – 1997 Nobel laureate in physics for the development of methods using lasers to cool and trap atoms; William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Humanities and Sciences and professor of physics and molecular and cellular physiology at Stanford University; former director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory; served as the 12th U.S. Secretary of Energy under President Barack Obama from January 2009 until April 2013, the first scientist to hold a cabinet position.

To answer the question “Where does science go from here?” it helps to have a broad range of scientific perspectives. The career of Steven Chu has touched vastly different realms of science, from pure science to public policy, through his service as an administrator and as an academic, in fields from physics, to biology, and to energy, all giving him a unique view on this question we will explore at Nobel Conference 50.

Chu began his studies in physics and mathematics at the University of Rochester, earning a bachelor's degrees in both in 1970. His Ph.D. thesis in 1976 and postdoctoral studies, both at Berkeley, were in the area of atomic physics. In 1978 he continued his atomic studies at Bell Laboratories, developing a technique using lasers to cool atoms, work that resulted in his share of the 1997 Nobel Prize.

In 1987 he joined the faculty at Stanford University not only continuing his atomic physics studies, but also branching into the fields of polymer physics and biology using his “optical tweezers” method of manipulating molecules like polymers and DNA. During this time he helped start Bio-X, a multi-disciplinary initiative that brings together the physical and biological sciences with engineering and medicine.

Then, in 2004 Chu was named the Director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and professor of physics and professor of molecular and cell biology at the University of California Berkeley, marking a transition of sorts that would lead him to become active in addressing the energy and climate change problems. Advocating sustainable and carbon neutral energy sources, he led the production of several reports including the Inter-Academy Council “Transitioning to Sustainable Energy” and the NAS/NAE/NRC reports, “Rising Above the Gathering Storm” and “America’s Energy Future.” It was during his time at LBNL that Dr. Chu joined us for Nobel Conference 43, “Heating Up the Energy Debate,” at which he shared with us his vision for what we could do to solve these problems.

In January 2009, Chu was appointed as the first scientist to head the U.S. Department of Energy. There, he focused on better collaboration between science and government and on new initiatives to address energy and climate change issues. For example, he spearheaded the program ARPA-E (Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy) that would focus on high-risk high reward energy research that could result in the invention of disruptive technologies. Chu served until April 2013, ending his tenure as the longest serving Secretary of Energy. During his time at the DOE, the use of renewable energy in the US doubled. He has since rejoined the faculty at Stanford University.

Chu holds 10 patents and has published more than 250 scientific and technical papers. In addition to the Nobel Prize and numerous other honors, he is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Academia Sinica, and a foreign member of the Royal Academy of Engineering, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and the Korean Academy of Sciences and Technology, Honorary Fellow of the Institute of Physics, and Honorary Member of the Optical Society of America.