The Nobel-winning physicist on learning chemistry, staying informed and speaking out

Steven Chu is the William R Kenan, Jr professor of physics and a professor of molecular and cellular physiology at Stanford University, US. In 2007, he received the Nobel Prize in Physics for developing methods to cool and trap atoms with laser light. He served as the US Secretary of Energy between 2009–2013.

I come from a very scientific background, both my mother’s and father’s side. I think the expectation for the three brothers in our family and seven cousins was that we’d all be scientists. I was thinking of physics even as early as junior year of high school. When I went to college, I did both physics and mathematics, but ended up favouring physics. I loved physics because you didn’t have to memorise things. It was simple, yet very demanding intellectually. There’s nowhere else where you can have theories that can predict what will happen to the 12th or 15th decimal places, then go into the lab, measure it and find it agrees with experiments.

I’m in the process of learning chemistry. Will I ever learn it the way let’s say a synthetic organic chemist did? No, probably not. But at least I can become conversant in chemistry and begin to make contributions on the chemical parts of my projects. We were looking at a lot of structural data of how a particular protein motor works. For the first time, I really got into looking at the x-ray crystallographic structures, where the potential bonds were, what they’re doing, things like that.

Even though I’m in my 70s, I still can align optics better than anyone else in my group. It’s always a competition, who can align things the best? I am also able to align commercial lasers better than the technicians who are sent to install a newly purchased laser. It is weird, but I feel good about that.

I was the US Secretary of Energy. Sometimes, when you deal with politicians, they want to embarrass the administration. If they were against what I was pushing very hard, which was making the transition to clean energy, they were trying to find fault in all these things. In many of those circumstances, they would say things that they knew were not true. They knew I knew what they were saying was not true. And yet, they would still say them in front of the TV cameras.

I spend a lot of time reading the newspaper. We get the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, just to stay informed. It was reading the newspapers that actually got me interested in energy and climate change. I started reading the scientific literature when I thought well, maybe there’s some truth in all of this. This was around the year 2000.

I think Nobel laureates have a responsibility to speak out if they’re well informed. Occasionally, they speak out and they’re not so well informed. That could be dangerous because as laureates they are generally given the benefit of the doubt. There have been a few laureates who really didn’t believe in climate change. I used to be friends with them and try to talk to them, but they don’t know the ground information, which is something that usually you don’t see among scientists.

I work hard partly because I love what I’m doing

When things occur where I have voice and where people may listen, I do try to speak out as much as possible. For example there’s growing mistrust in immigrant scientists, thinking that they are trying to try to steal secrets from US scientists. There’s suspicion that Chinese–American scientists in academia suspected of sending stolen information back to China. While there’s many examples of industrial espionage, there have been very rare cases of ‘academic espionage’ where people have improperly gained information without the knowledge and consent of the university researchers. While there have been a number of arrests, there are virtually no convictions of that sort of behaviour. The few ‘guilty’ pleas have to do with failure to inform funding agencies or the universities of collaborations or researach support. But it’s not having a good effect on people in the US. Science here is largely built on the fact that we were a welcoming home for many, many immigrant students, postdocs and other scientists who stayed and became Americans.

I know I’m what some would call workaholic. But I work hard partly because I love what I’m doing. I don’t take that many vacations. The only time I really wanted to take a vacation was when I was Secretary of Energy. I wish I could figure out how to spend more time with my wife and my friends.

I like to cook. Even if I don’t have free time, I set aside time for it. I don’t have a favourite recipe, I like all nationalities, everything. Sometimes the most fun is when you go to the market and you just see what’s there. And the second most fun is when you see what’s left over in the refrigerator. Because that’s where you get to be a little bit more creative.