Steven Chu Nominated to be Secretary of Energy

By Sean Carroll | December 10, 2008 5:53 pm

Steven Chu This is fantastic news. Steven Chu, director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab and 1997 Nobel Laureate in Physics for his work in laser cooling of atoms, has been nominated to be the next Secretary of Energy in the Obama administration. (Thanks to Elliot in comments.) This post is enormously important for science in general and physics in particular, as the DOE is responsible for much of the funding in physics and a lot of other R&D work. It’s also, needless to say, a crucial position for determining the country’s energy policy at a time when strong and imaginative leadership in this area is crucial.

I can’t imagine a pick for the job that would make me happier. Obviously Chu is a Nobel-prize-winning physicist, which is not bad. Almost as obviously, he’s an incredibly smart and creative guy. For evidence, look no further than his group’s web page at LBL. You’ll see atomic physics, for which he won the Nobel, but there are also very serious efforts in biophysics and polymer science, just because he thinks those things are interesting. (Apparently he has not devoted much thought to advanced HTML design.) I got to talk with him at the launch event for the Science and Entertainment Exchange — he also cares about the public perception of science — and it’s clear that he has a wide-ranging, creative intellect, which is what we need to tackle the problems of energy production over the years to come. Chu has recently become intensely concerned about the challenge of global warming, and is serious about doing something to fix things. He and Craig Venter are teaming up to make microorganisms that turn carbon dioxide into strawberry ice cream, or something like that. I wouldn’t bet against them.

Let’s be clear: just because Chu is an accomplished physicist, this doesn’t mean that researchers should expect a bonanza of new funds. The previous administration has left the budget and the economy in shambles, and nominating a Nobel Laureate to head DOE doesn’t magically bring new money into existence. But it means the hard choices that inevitably will be made will be made intelligently by people who understand the significance of what is going on. We can never ask for more than that.

Here is Steven Chu talking about Science Debate 2008. Berkeley’s loss is Washington’s gain, but in this case the country will be better off for it.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science and Politics
  • graviton383

    This is great news for ALL science in the US…

  • Lawrence Crowell

    EXCELLENT!!! A physicist to head DOE, what a concept!

    L. C.

  • http://cosmicvariance.com JoAnne

    I’ve died and gone to heaven.

  • graviton383

    It’s clear that we finally have a president with his head screwed on right….

  • onymous

    He and Craig Venter are teaming up to make microorganisms that turn carbon dioxide into strawberry ice cream

    Just make sure Leon Kass doesn’t get wind of this, or that any consumption of the ice cream happens in private!

  • z

    Even as a person to did not vote for Obama (I voted for Nader), I have to admit this is more than just a good choice by Obama.

  • http://tyrannogenius.blogspot.com Neil B

    I met Obama’s designated domestic adviser Melody Barnes, and will email her that I and lots of scientists think Chu was a good choice.

    Now, an energy question coming up in letters to Newsweek (12/15) – Glenn Sjoden at UF claims that reprocessing of nuclear fuel is relatively easy and done by other nations (like France and Japan) except the US – is he right? Is it really a good idea?

  • Matt

    Seems like every piece of paper coming out of LBL these days has a picture of Dr. Chu on it. I for one will welcome seeing other faces.

  • DP

    This is the best news I’ve heard since November 4th, and the second-best all year. This is one President who will actually listen to scientists – during a cabinet meeting!

  • Tom Matthews

    Awesome! I went out to dinner with him last year, he’s a fantastic person with wide interests and hopefully an accomplished administrator.

  • OLd Leatherneck

    WOW!! What a brilliant choice. If someone could only ignore the failures of the Bush Administation regarding Iraq, Katrina, the Justice Department and the Economic Collapse, they might find that history will show that the failure to listen to the scientific community in regards to Climate Change will be the biggest failure of all.

    I didn’t know who Steven Chu was until a few hours ago. Since then, I’ve watched interviews, speaches and read numerous testamonials. Intially, my impression of Steven Chu is that he is a brilliant scientist who also possesses the gifts of comunication skills, critical thinking skills, exemplry leadership skills and and charning sense of humor.

  • http://TwoSistersArtandSoul Lisette Root

    Thank You Sir, for taking on such a large responsibility for all of us. We need your abilities to help us all. Respectfully, L.Root

  • dmr

    To be fair, the current DOE director, while not the superstar that Dr. Chu is, is also a physicist with impressive academic credentials.

  • David

    Seems like Samuel Bodman (current Secretary of Energy) is not a physicist and is in fact more of a corporate administrator than a scientist (but was a chemical engineering prof.)

    http://www.whitehouse.gov/government/bodman-bio.html

    “A financier and executive by trade, with three decades of experience in the private sector…”

    I am very pro Steve Chu (also happens to be a former prof. at my University ;) )

  • Ian

    We picked the right president; he turns around and assembles a great team of problem solvers. The future looks quite a bit brighter. Cheers!

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  • My-Name-is-Kenneth

    I’ve somehow been shunted into a parallel universe, right? One where the US President is intelligent and aware and he makes choices for his cabinet posts based on competence rather than cronyism.

    Eight years under the thumbs of the Village Idiot and Darth Vader have taken a certain toll. Let us hope America is never that dumb again.

    I know, I know. But I had to say it anyway.

  • Toiski

    I, for one, welcome your new overlords.

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    Marvelous news!

    I echo the bittersweet realization about the loss to public science, though. The work his lab is doing on the spatial and temporal determinants of promotor activity is exactly the sort of stuff the field needs to move the understanding of the “language” of transcriptional control forward toward full comprehension. I’m sure he’ll see to it he has a capable successor, though.

  • Haelfix

    This is excellent news. He can start by doing a thorough review of the grant process and the people who work on it. Perhaps you know, hiring people who actually understand a little physics rather than giving grants based on who has the best cover letter and use of buzzwords.

  • http://www.amanochocolate.com/blog/ Clark

    If we’re doing stimulus packages wouldn’t getting money out there to hire new professors and do research be something that would get money into the system faster than infrastructure spending and also have even better long term consequences?

    Yes Bush was clueless about science at times. (Even many conservatives were angry about that) But lowering expectations about science seems wrong. It really doesn’t take a whole lot to increase funding. Especially if it’s just increasing the budgets of the NIH or NSF.

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  • Bruce

    As a big Obama supporter, I have said for a long time that the people he brings into the government will be the determining factor of his success, and that he would bring in people that were fit for the job. With one very Large exception, he has done just that. I’ve never heard Dr. Chu’s name before today, but after reading a part of his autobiography, and information on the internet, as well as the accolades above, I congratulate Barack Hussein Obama on an excellent choice.

  • Janice Silverman

    Dr. Chu’s energy research is entirely funded by British Petroleum, through a controversial $500 million dollar contract with UC Berkeley and Lawrence Berkeley Labs (as well as the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign). The emphasis at the BP-created initiative is mainly on biofuels, which are not universally considered the best answer by the scientific community and have been largely panned by the environmental community. The deal has come under heavy criticism for potentially ensuring that a major oil company will be setting much of the agenda for energy research in the coming century (not to mention setting the agenda for the public universities involved). Not an entirely evil enterprise, perhaps, but hardly free of distortion by economic interests. And Dr. Chu was a major force creating the deal. So not to rain on anyone’s parade, but just to add a little perspective. This appointment is very much in the mold of other Obama appointments: Super-smart, super-qualified guy – but no progressive.

  • http://www.pieter-kok.staff.shef.ac.uk Pieter Kok

    I heard Chu talk about energy policy at the 2005 Einstein conference in Warwick, England, and I had the strong impression that he is very much committed to solving the climate change problem. Janice may well be right about the money trail (links please?) but I do think Chu is quite progressive on this front.

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  • Matt A

    “The previous administration has left the budget and the economy in shambles”.

    The democrats in congress are far more responsible for the credit crisis than the Bush administration.

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  • Colo

    I am optimistic with Chu’s appointment that many national problems over which DOE has jurisdiction will see lots of good progress. But physicists should be careful: make sure your big proposals are good, because the Secretary of Energy will be able to make informed personal judgments on them!

    In general having a physicist in charge of DOE may prove a mixed blessing for physics: the Sec of Energy in practice has lots of influence on how DOE Office of Science funds are allocated, and all physicists have their own (generally strongly held) opinions on which subfields are deserving and which ones aren’t. I don’t know Chu well enough to know his biases, but I’m sure we’ll find out when the 2010 budget request comes out…

  • Neal J. King

    Janice Silverman,

    It is a big improvement to start out with competence,to which we can hope that Obama will be willing to listen.

    We are not going to get radical change unless there is a publicly perceived need for it. And that will come more easily if the people in charge are not seen as predisposed to be radical.

    You remember: “Only Nixon could go to China.”

  • Zulon

    To Neil B:

    Neil B wrote: “Now, an energy question coming up in letters to Newsweek (12/15) – Glenn Sjoden at UF claims that reprocessing of nuclear fuel is relatively easy and done by other nations (like France and Japan) except the US – is he right? Is it really a good idea?”

    Indeed, that is the ADS concept (Accelerated Driven System). A gap in that way was realized by a french team at Grenoble University (France) with the GENEPI source during 2004, and now the MYRRHA european project. The original ideas were due to two Nobel Prices in physics E. Lawrence (1939) and C. Rubbia (1984). The process can burned nuclear wastes and drive safety sub-critical nuclear cores. It could be a very important solution to energy. See:

    http://lpsc.in2p3.fr/gpr/gpr/index.htm

    http://www.sckcen.be/myrrha/home.php

    and the CEA (unfortunately only in french):

    http://nucleaire.cea.fr/fr/nucleaire_futur/autres_voies.htm

  • Zulon
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  • Bill

    This guy has no perception of reality, did you hear him at the Senate confirmation hearings..wants to increase gas tax by .25 per gallon.

  • Sask Resident

    A practicing scientist may be willing to allow and to fund scientists who question the “flavour of the week”, sometimes driven by the media under the guidance of political “scientists”. Will Chu be able to survive the politics of the Cabinet? Will Obama be willing to listen to all and then make an informed decision, not like the media/ politicians which perceives the decision then look for people to justify it.

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  • http://None Dolly Ross

    PLEASE, PLEASE, SECY. OF ENERGY, DR. CHU, AS AN 82 YR. – YOUNG, RECENTLY WIDOWED, YOU MUST CONSIDER ONLY THE O N E & ONLY ‘ALTERNATIVE’ TO OUR DEAR COUNTRY’S ENERGY PROBLEM IN OUR COUNTRY, MAINLY NUCLEAR ENERGY, AND AM BEGGING YOU, TO RECONSIDER DOING AWAY WITH THE YUCCA WASTE, WHICH IS ABSOLUTELY RE-NEWABLE++…AND S A F E ! REF: {1} DR. BILL WATTENBURG, KGO TALK RADIO HOST, WHO HAS HIGHLY RECOMMENDED THE FOLLOWING BOOK.. {2} ..WRITTEN IN 2000 BY ROBERT C. MORRIS, “THE ENVIRONMENTAL CASE FOR NUCLEAR POWER” {ECONOMIC, MEDICAL, AND POLITICAL CONSIDERATIONS}..

    YES, AFTER CHECKING IT OUT FROM OUR LOCAL ‘CITY OF FORTUNA’ PUBLIC LIBRARY, READING IT, AND THEN ‘BOUGHT’ 2 OF THEM @ ‘BORDERS’, ‘1’ FOR ONE OF MY GRANDSONS, NOW @ BERKELEY UNIV. AND THE OTHER, FOR MYSELF ! IT IS EXTREMELY COMPREHENSIVE IN EVERY WAY.. AND A ‘MUST READ’..

    AGAIN, KINDLY FEEL FREE TO CONTACT DR.WATTENBURG, IF YOU HAVEN’T HEARD FROM HIM, PREVIOUSLY.. JUST GO TO YOUR WEBSITE TO ‘KGO RADIO’ 810AM.. DR. W. IS LISTED NEAR THE BOTTOM OF THE HOST LIST, A N D CAN ALSO BE PHONED @ 415-80-80-810, ANYTIME !

    THANKING YOU, AND WITH KIND REGARDS TO YOU AND TO YOURS, I WISH TO REMAIN, ~ M e ~

  • evangore

    Those of us who listen to Dr.Wattenburg’s program on KGO radio must concede that he is one of the biggest nuclear energy proponents(that’s primarily what his program is about). So it was to him that many would look to as a barometer of Dr.Chu’s performance in regards to nuclear energy. After several months now, it is clear to many of his listeners, that Dr.Chu is dropping the ball on nuclear energy. And many have called into Dr.Bill’s program to express their displeasure, only to have their complaints brushed-off and re-directed toward others(Pelosi,Gore,The Sierra Club ect.). Dr.Bill cannot seem to be able to take-on Chu directtly. Even the most die-hard Wattenburg supporter must(if they’re honest) acknowledge that Dr.Bill is avoiding criticizing Chu directly. This leads to the question: Why is Dr.Bill treading softly around Chu? Could it be he’s met his match? Perhaps he feels bolder against the non-scientist politician or civilian. Is that clucking we’re hearing doc, or is it the knocking of chicken-hawk knees?

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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .

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