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Nature has named physicist Steven Chu, Nobel laureate and the US Secretary of Energy, as Newsmaker of 2009. The accolade is in recognition of Chu’s outstanding scientific career and in light of his mission to transform the way the world’s largest economy powers itself.
In the December 24 issue of Nature [subscription], Eric Hand writes an insightful and informative profile of Chu. He portrays Chu as a dedicated and brilliant scientist whose determination to solve the energy problem, rather than a desire for career advancement, has made him the first scientist since the cold war to play such an active role in the US government. “The ambition was all intellectual and scientific. Steve never cared about money. He didn’t even care about advancement”, says his ex-wife Lisa Chu-Thielbar. Speaking about how he became US energy Secretary, Chu says “it just sort of happened. I followed the path first from going and doing the science, to getting very concerned about some issues that affect us all as a society, to finally saying, I can’t sit idly by and occasionally give a talk on this. I really have to get proactive and put my money where my mouth is and do a career shift because it is that important."
But Chu also comes across as someone who likes to fly solo, and his reluctance to hand over responsibility to others has earned him criticism. “He doesn’t see the necessity to get other people involved,” says one scientist who knows him well but did not want to be identified as criticizing an official who controls so much research funding. “His whole career has been founded on his fantastic ability to worry about all the details himself. And that makes it hard for him to empower an effective staff.”
His ability to worry about the details has also earned him acclaim. “One of his abilities is to find the salient detail that matters enormously in the big picture,” says Paul Alivisatos, who succeeded Chu as the head of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
“Such commitment to public service is a long and honourable tradition among scientists. Although it would be naive to think that one scientist can move politicians with long-standing opposition to climate legislation, Chu’s efforts may help tilt the balance towards the passage of a bill and the eventual ratification of an international climate treaty. Those who stand on the side of logic and data should vigorously support his efforts”.