For anyone who has followed the career and accomplishments of Steven Chu, the news that president-elect Obama will nominate the director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) to be his energy secretary is both remarkable and encouraging. Remarkable in that one of the world’s leading physicist and a Nobel laureate will be a member of the administration’s cabinet, sitting next to the politicians, lawyers, and economists. Encouraging in that Chu has become a leading advocate for, and expert on, new energy technologies. Chu manages at LBNL what is, arguably, the leading center in the world for energy research and the development of new energy-related technologies. His initiatives since becoming director in 2004 include the Joint BioEnergy Institute, the Energy Biosciences Institute, and Helios, a multiscience energy science center. As President Obama moves ahead on his multibillion-dollar plans to invest in clean technologies, he will need an expert to decide what will work and what is hype. One couldn’t think of a better person to do that than Chu.
But to me, Chu will always be remembered for his “optical molasses.” In some of the most amazing physics experiments of the late 20th century, Chu, while working at Bell Labs, used a series of lasers to slow atoms down to a crawl and then used the light to “trap” and manipulate the sluggish atoms. (Chu shared the 1997 Nobel Prize in Physics for the work.) Anyone who could figure out how to use optical molasses can surely figure out how to manipulate his way around the bureaucratic traps at the Department of Energy.
Also encouraging is the news of Obama’s anticipated announcement of Lisa P. Jackson as the new administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. Encouraging because Jackson will be, according to my quick search, the first engineer to head the EPA, which has been run since its inception in 1970 by lawyers and various political hacks. Hopefully, Jackson, who holds a graduate degree in chemical engineering from Princeton, will bring a technical acumen to the job that has been sadly missing from the agency.