Deutch ‘61, PhD ‘66, joined the MIT faculty in 1970. By 1977, he had begun to establish ties to Washington, serving as the first director of energy research in the new U.S. Department of Energy.
“Energy has fundamentally been my first love,” he says. “It combines all the elements that really interest me: science, engineering, public policy, international affairs.” In addition to conducting basic research in physical chemistry, Deutch publishes articles on energy policy, examining topics from nuclear proliferation to fuel cells and hybrid cars.
“He’s one of the guys who understands technology and who knows the government and who knows what the government cares about,” says Nurettin Demirdoven, PhD ‘03, SM ‘05, who earned his doctorate in technology and policy and had Deutch as an advisor. “He’s really successful in what he does because he can put these two things in the same packet….I think his contributions mostly originate from putting science in a way that people in the government understand.”
Deutch is famously stern and straightforward. Ask him about his political career, and he returns curt, tempered responses, as if he has answered the questions a thousand times. But ask him about tennis, and his eyes light up. His voice gets louder and sounds younger, and he’ll even lean back in his chair and smile. Get him to talk about his family, and his usually narrow gaze and firm voice relax; suddenly warm and affable, he talks as if to an old friend.
“My wife plays beautiful tennis,” he muses. “It’s one of the great joys of my marriage, playing mixed doubles.” Deutch doesn’t count his political appointments or intellectual attainments among the “big deals” in his life. “You want to know the truth?” he asks. “I have two grandsons on the way this summer. I have three sons. That’s a big deal. That’s what happens when you get older – you start to count your real blessings.”
And these days he seems to prefer professorship to politics. “My satisfaction comes from being an MIT professor,” he says. “Whether I have a named chair, or whether I’m an Institute Professor, to me, is a minor matter compared to the pleasure and privilege I enjoy as an MIT professor.”
While the appointment of Institute Professors might seem likely to excite envy, it actually appears to build camaraderie. Moses, who was head of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science when Dresselhaus was named Institute Professor in 1985, says, “It was an enormously uplifting event for the department. It isn’t simply about the individual – there’s also the feeling that the department has been honored.”
MIT is rife with extraordinary people, and limiting the number of Institute Professors to only a dozen or so means that many exceptional teachers and researchers are left out. But that’s part of what makes the title so meaningful. “In general, I think we’re maybe a little more tough on ourselves than we should be,” says Moses. But selecting the Institute Professors, he continues, “is one of the things that MIT does well.”