R&D Magazine's 2011 Scientist of the Year is No Surprise

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Energy Secretary Chu Department of Energy

Dr. Steven Chu, Energy Secretary and 2011 Scientist of the Year

One of the few constants of science is the quantum of surprise. That's as true for the unplanned process of discovery as it is the unexpected lives of scientists themselves: The surprising twists and turns that lead them to produce lasting insights and innovations.

A great example is Secretary of Energy Dr. Steven Chu, who was just named the 2011 Scientist of the Year by R&D Magazine. The award recognizes Secretary Chu's leadership role in U.S. energy research and development, as well as his past and present achievements in scientific research. He joins a notable company of other R&D Magazine awardees including Tim Berners-Lee, the progenitor of the World Wide Web and J. Craig Venter, the pioneer of genome sequencing.

A former Director of the Office of Science's Berkeley National Laboratory and professor of physics and molecular and cellular biology, Secretary Chu has published nearly 250 scientific papers and has been awarded 10 patents. He also shared the 1997 Nobel Prize in Physics, for using laser light to cool gasses to fractions of a degree above absolute zero (as cold as any object can become), and then trapping those frozen atoms.

But growing up, Secretary Chu stood out in another way…for his lackluster performance in school. As he noted in his autobiography for the Nobel Prize, Secretary Chu was known in his scholarly family for his distinct lack of accomplishment, and added that his academic performance in high school was "decidedly mediocre."

Secretary Chu eventually caught the science bug, thanks in part to a gifted physics teacher. But instead of doing experimental physics—for which he won his Nobel—Secretary Chu began his scientific career with a strong interest in theoretical astrophysics. He earned his Ph.D. in physics from the University of California, Berkeley and went to Bell Laboratories… where he began to work on an experiment that his managers thought was impossible. Specifically, he and colleague Alan Mills tried to observe the optical fluorescence of positronium, an extremely unstable form of the element hydrogen (so unstable that it decays in far less than the blink of an eye). It took them years before they got it right, caught sight of the signal via their instruments, and made a precise measurement of the phenomenon.

Through another unexpected series of events—a broadening of his research interests and informal conversations with a colleague—Secretary Chu ended up doing his Nobel Prize winning experiments in laser cooling. Recently, scientists at Argonne National Laboratory have begun applying that work in an unexpected way, to map the locations of large underground aquifers (http://energy.gov/articles/secretary-chu-s-nobel-prize-winning-research-unexpectedly-addressing-global-water-challenge.)

Similar stories of scientific surprise can be told by other R&D Magazine awardees and Office of Science researchers. Like Secretary Chu, they are determined to excel, and they excel in unexpected situations. In doing so, they make discoveries and develop innovations that improve our nation in lasting, and yes, surprising ways.

For more information about Secretary Chu’s 2011 Scientist of the Year award, please go to: http://www.rdmag.com/News/2011/09/Scientist-of-the-Year-Dr-Steven-Chu/, and look for Secretary Chu to be featured in its December 2011 issue. For more information on DOE's Office of Science, please go to: http://science.energy.gov/.

Charles Rousseaux is a Senior Writer in the Office of Science.