By LIA Executive Director Peter Baker
It was my pleasure, along with Director of Conferences Gail LoIacono, to greet Nobel Laureate and Secretary of Energy Steven Chu as he entered the ICALEO hotel through the kitchen entrance, accompanied by a flurry of advance people and security staff. He paused briefly in the kitchen, whipped out his laptop to make some last minute changes to his talk, then on we went to the head table for lunch.
During our lunch conversation I began to understand some of the sacrifices he made leaving his career as director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory to become U.S. Secretary of Energy and I could also feel his deep commitment to his mission to prepare the U.S. for the carbon limited future which he believes is coming.
Dr. Chu’s talk was an interesting mix of personal background, career highlights and technical insights ranging from quantum physics to the use of lasers to bring atoms close to absolute zero and even some of the implications of this to the General Theory of Relativity!
Dr. Chu opened his talk with some family photos. One showed his parents in China with his aunt who was a professor of chemistry of prestigious Tsinghua University in Beijing, yet, in accordance with the custom of those times, had her feet bound.
He continued with some anecdotes about Arthur Schawlow during their days ay Stanford, recounting how Schawlow liked to have fun and would often shake with laughter, particularly at his own jokes!
Dr. Chu, a gracious and entertaining speaker spoke about “A Random Walk in Science and Other Adventures.”
To me, it was striking how he illustrated the power of connections, both between people and between facets of science and technology. Dr. Chu emphasized that scientists do not necessarily plan their careers; they just do the next best thing that is in front of them and follow their noses. He “grew up with lasers” and when he wanted to work with a dye laser he went ahead and built one. His work with that laser provided one of the experimental tests of the unified field theory of strong and weak interactions.
He spent eight years at Berkeley, where Charles Townes was on the faculty, and there he built a glass laser. Next he went to Bell Labs, initially for two years which grew into nine years. There he did his work on cooling and trapping of atoms, which had its foundation in an early paper by Dr. Schawlow and Theodore Hänsch on the Cooling of Gases by Laser Radiation. Later, in 1997, at Stanford he asked Schawlow why he had omitted this paper from the bibliography for his Nobel Prize and Schawlow said “in 1981 how was I to know it was going to become important?”
At Stanford, Chu used lasers and cooled atoms in some early work which led to a more accurate atomic clock. In kindly professor style he showed how the measurement of frequency is the most precise possible, and how length (meters) and electrical standards (the ohm, the volt) are defined in terms of time and frequency. The importance of this is shown by the fact that seven Nobel Prizes have been awarded for work related to atomic clocks. Also, the G.P.S. that we all use so casually would be useless without atomic clocks.
Dr. Chu then showed further connections such as the relationship between this work and Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. How the cooling of atoms led to a new state of matter, the Bose-Einstein condensate and might lead to yet another new state of matter when the condensate is rotated.
Throughout his talk, Dr. Chu’s conversational approach, complete mastery of the material and gift for showing how things are connected had the audience believing, for one brief shining moment, that we actually understood this stuff!
He then explained his concerns about rising temperatures and how his belief that we will live in a carbon-constrained environment caused him to accept his present post as U.S. Secretary of Energy. He believes that the U.S. should develop the technology needed to deal with this; otherwise we will be forced to buy the technology from others.
He closed with two striking pictures of our Earth, taken from space. The first from Apollo 8 is a picture of our warm inviting Earth, taken from the moon. Then he showed a picture taken from Voyager 1 as it sailed past Jupiter, Saturn and Uranus towards Pluto and out of our Solar System. Earth was just a pale dot in a haze of dust. He quoted the late astronomer, Carl Sagan, to the effect that Earth is just a speck of dust, suspended in a sunbeam, we have nowhere to go, this is where we must make our stand.
Finally, he quoted a touching Native American saying “treat the Earth well, it was not given to you by your parents, it was loaned to you by your children.” As he concluded by saying “we must remember that,” the audience rose to give him a most well deserved standing ovation.