When Steven Chu shared the 1997 Nobel Prize in Physics with two colleagues, he was too busy continuing his work in experimental physics to imagine that he would be the United States Secretary of Energy in the near future. In 2009, Chu became the first scientist to be appointed to the U.S. Cabinet, and spearheaded the launch of many important initiatives, ARPA-e (Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy), Bio-X and the Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology among them. Prof. Steven Chu is one of the leading scientists of our day working in such fields as experimental physics, energy, biology, medicine and chemistry.
Professor Steven Chu, Nobel Laureate in Physics and the 12th United States Secretary of Energy, was the Commencement speaker at the 23rd Koç University Graduation Ceremony, and we found the occasion to speak with him on a wide variety of subjects ranging from Nobel Prize to his versatility as a scientist, renewable energy and climate change.
Kurious: Your Nobel Prize winning research was about cooling atoms to extremely low temperatures and capturing them in a trap. What did you aim to achieve with this research and what kind of new developments has it led to in physics?
Steven Chu: “One of the things I knew when I started was that when atoms are this cold you can make better measurements that allow you to make a better atomic clock. Now atomic clocks are used in ways that most people aren’t aware of. For example your smartphone uses an atomic clock because it uses GPS. These are a series of satellites that have atomic clocks in them, that triangulate and tell you where you are based on the time delays between measured by the very precise atomic clocks in those satellites. In fact, all the information in your phones and computers are synchronised with atomic clocks around the world. While invisible to most people, atomic clocks are the backbone of how many of these things work.”
“So one of the first applications after we succeeded was to show that you can make a better atomic clock. Within seven years of that first experiment, the bureaus and standards of the world had jumped on it, and began to use the laser cooled atoms in this so-called atomic clock as the standard – this was a very, very fast adaptation.”
“Other applications included actually splitting the atoms apart, bringing them back together again, and using the wave-like properties of the atoms to make an exquisite measurement tool that has turned out to be the most sensitive way of measuring gravity and changes in gravity, and has even been proposed as a way to look for gravity waves. It is also being designed to go into a satellite to circumnavigate the globe and measure changes in gravity to reveal changes in the Earth. For example, you can measure changes in glaciers and the water table all around the world. It has become the most sensitive way of measuring gravity and you can measure changes in glaciers of two millimetres in over two kilometres of ice. This was an application I never suspected when I began, but soon after we got it to work, we did again the first experiments to show this was a very sensitive measurement of gravity.”
“So there have been many applications in physics; it has been used in a second Nobel Prize winning work on Bose condensation (2001 Nobel Prize for Physics on Bose-Einstein Condensates), and probably you could get a third or fourth Nobel Prize in Physics! It has transformed the field of atomic physics, and the interface between atomic and condensed matter physics. But it is also being used in biology. You can use the optical traps to hold on to individual molecules and move them around and measure forces. Again, I wasn’t dreaming of this when I was doing the first work, but when I got to Stanford in 1989-1990 we showed that you could hold on to individual bio-molecules. Many more applications will continue to be invented by a younger generation of scientists.
As a physicist, you are also interested in polymer chemistry and biology. Has this multidisciplinary interest opened up new horizons to you as a scientist? Would you recommend young scientists to diversify their interests?
“Yes, I would recommend young scientists to diversify their interests. Most of my contributions have been in experimental physics, but going into polymer physics, biology, and more recently energy, batteries, nanotechnology, medical imaging, it has been a lot of fun for me to learn new things. I always encourage young people to be daring and bold. Not to stay in the same field they were when they did their student work, or their graduate student work, or where they post-doc, but actually to be willing to branch out and learn new things.”
We found the occasion to speak with him on a wide variety of subjects ranging from Nobel Prizes to his versatility as a scientist, renewable energy and climate change.
As Secretary of Energy you must have seen many times first hand how industry, business, and higher education can work together to bring positive change. What advice would you give young researchers and innovators looking to turn their ideas into a revolutionary technology?
“There are many, many steps between a scientific discovery becoming a new invention, and many steps before the new invention becomes useful. But the most important step, of course, is for it to make economic sense and be economically competitive with whatever else is out there. The other thing to consider, is that sometimes if you have a new way of doing something that will compete with an established industry, the established industry will fight for their survival – it’s very normal and to be expected! Sometimes in order to fight for their survival, these big established industries will either buy it and then shut it down, buy it and adapt it – which is good – or, just crush it by lowering the prices until they go out of business. Start-up companies are very fragile and there are laws to protect them and prevent big companies from trying to use unscrupulous, illegal methods to crush companies. Still, it is an issue and you have to be able to survive that. I use a biology analogy: if you are a small company with a new idea, it is viewed by the established company as an invader, and just like bacteria invading the human body, you create lots of antibodies to kill the invaders! And so it’s a protective mechanism that you have to be able to survive.”
Regarding climate change and the many worst-case climate change scenarios we hear about. Politicians talk about working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions but will it be enough? Do you believe renewable energy sources will be a solution? What approach would you suggest for a country such as Turkey with lots of sun and wind, but few natural oil or gas resources?
“Well, it’s a huge problem. If a country like Turkey does have huge amounts of sun and wind, this is very good because it is becoming a lower cost source of energy than importing fossil fuels, natural gas and oil especially. So, if you can have access to sun and wind it is possible now and in the coming years, to make that a growing fraction of the electricity your country needs.”
“I think in maybe five or ten years the cost of electric vehicles will come down so that ordinary people without subsidies can buy these cars, and when that happens then you need to import even less oil, which is very expensive for a country that doesn’t have oil. Most of the electric cars being sold right now are for rich people, or in countries that give significant subsidies, but I think in ten years things will change. I myself am doing research in batteries hopefully for electric vehicles. As a researcher you have to be optimistic and I’m optimistic – if we don’t solve it, someone else will. Batteries are becoming better and better and they are getting close to where the public will want them, where you can charge in five or ten minutes instead of two hours – that’s very important. Will it be enough? Right now No, but as technology gets better and as it becomes clearer what the real risks are, then I think the countries of the world will try harder. In the meantime the science and technology will also get better so it will not be that costly, and my hope is that it becomes so low cost that it doesn’t even matter if there is a climate change problem, people will choose it. But I should also say I am not crazily optimistic. The last 30% of energy that we use now as fossil energy will be very difficult to get rid of because you always need back-up power. Also, we don’t have a solution yet for airplanes – for personal cars and city buses, within five or ten years, electric vehicles will become a much wider spread – it is not likely we will see battery powered or solar powered commercial aircraft, at least not in the foreseeable future. Also when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine you need energy storage, and energy storage also adds to the expense. And so those issues are not completely solved – we know how to do it but it is more expensive and it has to be comparable in price to fossil fuels.”
With some governments seeming to prefer to step away from clean energy, and institutions and funding under threat, the future seems grim for clean energy research. What will this mean for the future of the global economy? What can countries such as Turkey do to reverse this trend?
“Well so far there’s only been one country that is stepping away from clean energy! Sadly, my country! I would say that the majority of normal citizen Americans did not want this to happen. But it did happen, and what will happen is that States like the one I live in California, or New York, Massachusetts, Illinois, and others are going to take the initiative, not the federal government. California already has a price on carbon. Since 1973 California has been a leader in energy efficiency, with higher fuel standards to get rid of air pollution and higher efficiency standards for appliances that the federal government later adopted, so they were usually 10 or 15 years in front of the federal government. Now more than ever they are going to have to be in front of the federal government, and usually when California does, this some other States follow. California is a very big economy, about the ninth largest economy in the world, it’s a huge economy, it has huge market power, but it also has a population where this is not much of a debate between Republicans or Democrats. Much like in Europe it’s not a debate – you can be conservative or you can be liberal but you are not going to say that climate change is not happening. What you do about it is part of the debate, and what the lowest cost way to do something about it, that’s a proper debate. In the United States debating about whether it is happening or not is just silly! And very sad. And as a scientist very embarrassing.”
“Regarding your final question about research and development, many of the new, very successful funding programs we started when I was Secretary of Energy, like ARPA-e, had strong bipartisan support. Many big Republican donors in industry, like the head of FedEx, the head of Walmart, and also non-political people like Bill Gates – Fred Smith (CEO of Walmart) got up in front of 5,000 people and said “this is the most successful federal funding program I have seen in my life, and I don’t just mean science funding” – they said that this is fantastic, and they were pushing the government to give them a billion dollars a year. The current administration, President Trump, has announced that he wants to give them zero. We started the program when I was Secretary of Energy and we got Republicans and Democrats to continue base funding budget that was slowly creeping up to 300 million dollars, but he wants to zero that out, and he wants to decrease funding for all energy efficiency and renewable energy by more than 30%. They say they want to do it because the private sector is better positioned to invest, but that’s simply not true. Many of the things that these agencies invest in, the private sector doesn’t touch for a few years. You need to get a little start before business people say Yes I will invest in this. And everybody knows this – I think including the current administration – but I think now it is hard to say why they are doing it, because I don’t think they are not that unknowledgeable. I suspect it might be because they represent the established industry that I talked about, the antibodies, and this may be an example of that.”
“Having said that, I don’t know what will happen, I don’t know whether Congress will go along with all this, probably not, but there will have to be a compromise between the President and Congress, so it might not be zero but it’s certainly not going to be an increase. He’s also called for a decrease in all the science budgets by 18% - National Institutes of Health, NASA, Department of Energy Science, and the National Science Foundation, all of those by 18%.”
“He doesn’t believe that this type of science actually leads to economic prosperity. Turkey, like all countries, wants to establish science and engineering in the country, because the United States for the last 80 years was the shining example of how you create real wealth by being the world leader in science – science, technology, computers, the internet, all the medical breakthroughs – we owe a lot of our prosperity to science and engineering, and every other country has learned what a great thing this is and they want to imitate the United States. But now the United States has forgotten why we got where we are! And that doesn’t make sense to me.”