Physicists got a major shout out from President-elect Barack Obama yesterday when he nominated Nobel Prize winning physicist Steven Chu to head the Department of Energy. In the past there have been many career politicians, lawyers and engineers who have held the post, but this is the first time that a physicist has been named to the position. Not only that, this is the first time ever that a Nobel laureate has been nominated to any cabinet post.
Chu, along with two others on his team, shared the prestigious award in 1997, for a series of experiments that cooled gaseous atoms to a fraction of a degree above absolute zero. In the mid 1980s the team shot six laser beams at each other between a pair of magnetic coils, capturing atoms in the center. This created what they called an “optical molasses,” trapping the particles inside at speeds slow enough to study their structures. In normal room temperature, gas atoms are so energetic they zip around at speeds around 400 km/hr. Chu’s team tricked the atoms to slow down to only about 25 cm/s, without freezing into a liquid or solid.
Since taking over the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in 2004, Chu has focused primarily on seeking alternative and green energy sources. Chu’s nomination is promising because it shows a real focus on scientific research and development to address the nation’s energy issues. As the department’s head, Chu will oversee the nation’s energy policy as well as its nuclear reactors, nuclear weapons and an array of National Research Labs.
So it looks like the Department of Energy is taken care of, now if only we physicists can get a Department of Matter up and running as well.