Obama Selects Nobel Prize Winning Nerd for Energy Chief

President-elect Barack Obama is said to be likely to name Steven Chu, the physicist who runs Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, as energy secretary.

Here are two things I like about this: (1) Chu believes science is real. (2) Chu believes climate change is real. Chu won the 1997 Nobel Prize in physics. If you were at a Christmas party with him and the topic of discussion shifted to atomic physics, he would pwn your ass real fast.

But he is not a politician. This fact worries some in Washington, because one of his first and most important tasks in early 2009 will be a landmark energy reform bill. More: CNN, NY Times, Reuters.

VIDEO: Chu speaking about "A New Energy Program," at the Climate Change and Global Politics Conference hosted by the World Affairs Council of Northern California.

UPDATE: Boing Boing pal Bart Nagel, who is a fine, fine photographer, shot this great portrait of Chu not long ago.


  1. I imagine that you can’t run a national lab like that for years without having a political bone somewhere in your body – he’ll do just fine.

    1. @lava, that is a very good point. I can’t imagine a more “political” environment, in the broad sense of the word, than the sort of bureaucracy that must exist at a government lab. Also, I understand he can see Russia from his desk.

  2. I don’t know much about the guy, but not being a politician seems like a plus to me. I am glad that O seems to be fulfilling his promise to recruit the best and brightest to help solve the massive problems we’re facing.

  3. Oh my freakin’ gods.. somebody in a government actually hired a real expert to do a job. That’s got to be one of the signs of the apocalypse.

  4. #1,#4: That’s quite true. At the very least he should be more than capable of handling politics in general. I think the worry is about some of the very specific features of the Washington environment. He still needs to get that bill passed, and I imagine that has a lot to do with knowing who’s got campaign funding from whom, and putting very complicated clauses in to satisfy corporate interests.

    OTOH, I’m sure Obama is quite capable of getting him a team of assistants to sort that out.

  5. @#2, Do you really think this administration can save our plant?

    And not to brag, but I have several plants of my own and have saved a few dozen just in my spare time, sooo, this guy ought’a aim higher.

  6. Just for the record — LBNL, where Chu is director, is a strictly non-nuclear weapons, non-classified, purely for-the-good-of-mankind lab.

    In fact, LBNL’s specialities are energy efficiency, fundamental science, astrophysics (Nobel prize this year!), applied physics and biophysics, cutting-edge genetics, and supercomputing.

    And you don’t get to run a major national lab unless you’re both a technical expert and an expert administrator. Generally, the same thing goes for Nobel-prize winners in physics, who nowadays need to head large, multimillion dollar research groups and oversee multiyear experiments.

    I’m thrilled to have a non-politician and a real scientist (and a DOE employee!) in the role, frankly. The best folks for the job are the ones who wouldn’t want to play politics to get it, and I don’t see any patronage in the decision, either. Meritocracy at its finest.

    1. Anonymous, that’s great, thanks for the comment. And I sure hope you’re right, I feel the same way.

  7. You can’t run the Rad Lab without knowing some politics — something true since Lawrence founded the thing. Whether campus and university politics is quite enough to play in Washington remains to be seen, but a good choice.

    Also, Go Bears.

  8. This is a very encouraging choice.

    1. He will not last, because what he says we must do and how we need to do it will be unpalatable.

    2. I’m sorry we can’t see the slides.

    3. If you click through to the full hour video, you’ll notice that ironically the video and the site are sponsored by Chevron.

  9. I think it’s rather surprising that more presidents DON’T appoint nobel prize-winning scientists to their cabinets, at least for science-related posts. I mean, don’t they pretty much have their pick of the best minds in the nation? How often do people say “no?”

    1. How often do people say “no?”

      Paul Krugman could have been running our economy, but refused to get suckered into a job that always ends at the guillotine.

  10. #12: Unpalatable or not, he at least needs to try. The melting polar ice is giving up its methane, and that’s a positive feedback loop.

    From another article by Gwynne Dyer (a political analyst who is particularly interested in climate change right now):

    About 70 interviews, a dozen countries, and 18 months later, I have reached four conclusions that I didn’t even suspect when I began the process. The first is simply this: the scientists are really scared. Their observations over the past two or three years suggest that everything is happening a lot faster than climate models predicted.

  11. Silly prejudiced journalists. Of course he’s got political skills! How do you think you get to be head of LBNL? By passing a written exam? :)

  12. Not a politician? Hah! Anyone who’s spent ANY TIME in academia knows how political it is. Add being a boss at LLL to the equation and I think you have someone who’s probably got more real political experience than most appointees in DC.

  13. This shouldn’t worry anyone in Washington. Good scientists are inherently good candidates for political offices.

    They think rationally, are trained to be good problem-solvers, and as a plus they’re often capable of clear, cogent communication.

    Besides, more scientists in politics would do a lot to curb the rampant ignorance of science in politics.

  14. Good news, Xeni! I hope to see more people from all walks of science included – this would never have happened were it Bush’s choice. Glad to see we recognize science again.

  15. Okay, so now he has to pick a “copyright czar.” Can we nominate Cory? Or would his Canadian-ness pose a barrier? :(

  16. While the politics at LBNL may be rough, Chu orchestrated the BioX Initiative / Clark Bioengineering building at Stanford, eventually leading to a new department, the only department at Stanford subordinate to the Schools of Engineering and Medicine. That kind of cat herding practice shoudl serve him well.

  17. I’m Canadian, and I, like many Canucks, have lost a lot of faith in the US over the past few years. I did not think that Obama would really change the status quo, I mean, It’s one guy against the establishment, right?
    Every day I am impressed with the wisdom and logic he uses is his decision making. The guy should have fucking pointy Vulcan ears! But on the other hand, he is so down to earth and genuine with the press, and seems intent on making real change.
    I think we can rest assured that each of these appointments are made not out of quid pro quo, but out of the idea that you need the smartest, most forward thinking experts in each area to solve these problems, and create a system that does not respond to crisis but averts it through policy making and good judgement.

    Bravo America! Your star is regaining it’s shine, ever so slowly…

  18. (1) Chu believes science is real. (2) Chu believes climate change is real.

    Good on #1. Maybe Obama will similarly find someone who thinks mathematics and economics are real to help him get his spending proposals in check.

    #2? C’mon. According to our best data, the planet has been cooling for the last 10 years. It’s asinine to make “belief in climate change” into a litmus test for public office. We don’t have that much good data, and much of the data is contradictory (for example, indicating that carbon dioxide levels are an effect of temperature increases, not a cause). If he believes in science, his position on the issue right now is meaningless, because he’ll follow the data where it leads.

  19. He is not a politician…

    Wonderful…the more of it the better.

    We are so accustomed to politicians we have come to believe it is a real job.

    Lets see trade specific people who happen to work in politics, rather than people who make a career out of political manoeuvres.

    Thinking and listening rather than playing the game.

  20. My guess would be that, since this is one of his key initiatives, Obama intend hadnling the politics of this one himself, so that a career politician would be redundant or even a hindrance.

  21. If the planet is cooling, where is all the ice going?

    And no consulting the Thoughts Of Ayn Rand for your answer, either!

  22. Can we PLEASE stop calling it “Climate Change”?

    Call it what it is supposed to be, Anthropogenic Global Warming. It seems to me that they stopped calling it Global Warming about 4 years ago when it also seems to me that it stopped actually getting warmer.

    We know that the climate changes, every aspect of it is in a constant state of flux and indeed if it didn’t change at least a tiny bit now and then most life on the planet would DIE.

    Calling it “Climate Change” is a cop out designed to raise yet another tax upon the workers of the world. Either there is man-made Global Warming or there isn’t. One can always and easily prove that the climate changes… like now I have snow on the ground outside = different from last week. Imagine that.

  23. Just because we are in a recession does not mean it’s a strictly losing scenario. Some of the biggest gains ever seen on the stock exchange were during the Great Depression. It’s the instability that makes it unpredictable. There is a wild swing effect. Global warming, climate change; is the same. You will have wild fluctuations before the tipping point throws the whole thing into a shitstorm.

  24. You know this administration is starting to remind me of the Simpsons episode where the MENSA club took over city hall (Skip to about 13:45). As you may remember it did not go well.

    Now that I think of it no Simpsons episode goes well so perhaps we have nothing to worry about.


    P.S. I have been fooled into believing politicians before and have always been disappointed. It is rarely the office-holders fault, but more to do with the incredible inertia of bureaucracy and the “system”.

    I am slowly coming around to the possibly that this time may be different.

    But I prefer to expect the worst and be happy when it turns out OK verses being optimistic and being disappointed by that very same “OK”.

  25. like now I have snow on the ground outside = different from last week. Imagine that.

    That would be weather. Climate is a long-term pattern. It is of utmost importance to correctly differentiate between the two, otherwise people don’t take you seriously, and you likely don’t deserve to be dismissed in such a way.

    Yes, calling it climate-change was likely a deliberate bid to avoid the “it doesn’t feel warmer” argument. This is in part because “global warming” wouldn’t necessarily mean that it’s just going to be a little warmer every day from now on. It would mean climate systems would be supplied with greater heat energy which would power them and be distributed by them and alter their behavior. It might well make it colder in some places as the mechanisms of world climate adjust to altered heat input, which is part of why the term “climate change” is used. It’s likely just marketing for the most part, looking for a more agreeable term, but it’s technically more accurately describing the effects.

    Perhaps “anthropogenic climate change” would be more satisfactory? That covers the dual entities of anthropogenic warming and cooling (the former caused by greenhouse gases trapping heat, the latter by particulate pollution reflecting sunlight)

  26. Good move, i hope that the energy-nerd has enough elbows to prove himself…

    CK from TheJunction

  27. #14, Bouncy Bouncy:

    by science’s own terms, science is not real (does not exist).

    Of course Science exists, it even has a website.

    It’s absurd to talk of whether science is ‘real’ or not; it’s a method (and possibly a philosophy), rather than an entity.

  28. yeah, global warming’s a myth. All those people claiming the polar ice caps are melting are FILTHY LIARS!


  29. No No No…

    Follow what we did in Australia and appoint a popular musician to environmental political positions.

    Then they can spend their days spouting off simple ideas that have no grounding in the real world and then being forced to eat there own words when it becomes apparent that they don’t know what they are talking about. Feel good symbolism for the win…

    Chu seems to realize that the economy is linked in a complicated way to energy and green house emissions. You can’t take away a persons income, stifle his chance at bettering his life, and tank the economy and still expect him to care about his 1/6000000000 contribution to carbon emissions.

    Chu seems interested in finding ways for all people to use the energy they need (and improve efficiency where practical) while reducing carbon emissions.

  30. Strictly speaking, the phrase “Climate Change” in place of “Global Warming” was a deliberate stratagem advocated by Frank Luntz. Luntz is a consultant who specializes in advising politicians and advocacy groups as to which specific words and phrases to use to sell policy. I don’t think it would be a big error to attribute the success of the Bush administration to Rove’s metrics and Luntz’s research.

  31. #14 Bouncy Bouncy:

    If your studies of the philosophy of science ended with Mr. Pirsig, I’d recommend reading a little further… ;)

  32. I for one am just happy to see a real super scientist in the president’s cabinet.

    Now he just needs to appoint Lawrence Lessig as copyright czar.

  33. I think this is great. It’s about time we got REAL professionals doing this work, instead of politicians who want to insert pork projects into every solution.

  34. A Roboton Czar would have a single laser that fires only in the direction he was facing and would successfully defend the world from hordes of robots.

  35. The problems are clear. We’re using too many fossil fuels. We need a replacement. There’s only one replacement that has any hope of working on a commercial scale in the next twenty years. It already exists, so we don’t need a smart guy to reinvent it. We need someone with the political will and power to get nuclear power plants built in large numbers.

    Appointing a bright guy is just another delaying tactic. It perpetuates the hope that we don’t have to make hard choices because we’ll be filling our cars with unicorn farts any day now.

    In the meantime, we’ll just keep burning coal.

  36. @ #48: umm no. Nuclear is another mineral resource that is just about depleted, not to mention the safety hazards for the next million years or so. Another short-term solution to a long-term problem.

    Oh well, I must be a hippie for even thinking about the next million years.

  37. Hurah! Someone who really knows what he is doing fills a post in government. I’m all for non-professional politicians running countries…at leeast they have some expertise in areas besides doubletalk and inuendo.

  38. Kieran

    and I imagine that has a lot to do with knowing who’s got campaign funding from whom, and putting very complicated clauses in to satisfy corporate interests.

    You should read up on the Gov of Illinois and what Obama offered him for naming the next senator from IL.


    Not graft.

    Hope Kieran, HOPE.

  39. Steven Chu is awesome awesome awesome. In the mid 90’s, I went to a physics colloquium he gave at UCSD. They scheduled the largest hall on campus. It was packed to the gills. They gave him an hour. Two hours in, he was still talking, and everyone was spellbound, jaws dropped, on the edge of their seats. He could grab onto individual molecules of DNA, look at them, pull them around, play with them in a way that no one would have believed possible if he hadn’t already done it. He is smart, funny, and immensely capable. I continue to be amazed at the kind and quality of people Obama can attract to public service.

  40. (1) Chu believes science is real. (2) Chu believes climate change is real.

    How curious that (2) would not fall entirely within (1).

    Regardless, this is indeed a Wonderful Thing!

  41. 1. I believe science is real
    2. I believe the world is round

    WHOA! Stop the presses!

    1. Great. I’m glad he believes science is real.
    2. Great. I’m glad he recognizes that planetary climate goes through change.

    I’m afraid we’re going to end up with some kind of card that every human will have to carry to prove they are not emitting too much CO2. This is just shitty. CO2 is a natural part of our atmosphere – in fact it is ESSENTIAL.

    This whole focus on CO2 being harmful for the planet is just plain wrong. The planet’s overall climate cycle is massively complicated and we can’t simply attribute it to CO2 alone. In fact it’s far more likely that solar cycles influence our overall climate cycles more than any one thing we do.

    HOWEVER —-

    We should refocus our efforts on things where we can affect truly positive results. (in systems we know that humans have caused direct harm and can be rectified simply, effectively, and without undue fear mongering and more centralization of power in the hands of a few Statists who wish to control our lives)

    1. Stop harmful deforestation. Get everyone to
    2. Stop polluting our rivers, streams, lakes and oceans. This is pretty simple – don’t put crap into the water you would not want to drink yourself.
    3. Don’t emit pollutants and toxins into the air(I don’t count CO2 as harmful but sulfur and other NOXIOUS gases/particulate matter can be harmful – acid rain etc)

    Start cleaning in small areas where we know humans have negatively affected small areas. Those are things we can clean up. They don’t require cap n trade policies, carbon footprint BS, more taxes, more FEAR mongering, more centralization of power within unelected centralized statist bureaucratic elitists who think they know what is best for everyone.

    Global Climate Change is a part of the planet’s life cycle. Humans play a small part in this, the Sun, our trajectory in the solar system, the earth’s core and rotation, all affect global climate and weather patterns more dramatically. Solar cycles play a massive role in this.

    By they way when did winning a Nobel peace prize transform a person into a god? This guy is human like the rest of us. He may in fact have personal biases and opinions that while may not be politically motivated COULD have political outcomes that affect us all.

  42. “(1) Chu believes science is real. (2) Chu believes climate change is real.”

    Samuel Bodman and most of Obama’s other potential picks think science is a hoax and assert that earth’s climate never changes.

  43. #49, reprocessing addresses your first complaint, as for the hazards, right now, today, pregnant women aren’t supposed to eat fish because of the mercury exposure. All our oceans are poisoned. And that’s without even getting into global warming. Irradiating a couple square miles of desert for a million years is no great loss by comparison.

    Zero impact is a myth, and there is a difference between bad and worse. But keep holding out for those unicorn farts. As with the economy, the longer we put off the reckoning hoping for a perfect solution that doesn’t exist, the worse it will be.

  44. heavyystarch – speaking as an environmental chemist, your understanding of CO2 is deeply is misinformed.

    So, is it profitable for you to so deeply misunderstand? Or is it profitable to spread your brand of non-sense?

  45. Chu like much of the LBL hierarchy is very troubling at this point.

    Here’s the problem. The scenario is almost exactly the same as what we saw in 1992.

    The industry will not lift a finger to support Obama or renewable energy and in many places will fight it because its against their bottom line agenda of baseloading power for their large wholesalers.

    Chu, Kammen and their mentor Per Peterson will give the industry what it wants. How hard he fights for renewables? Watch the DOE budget!

    The DOE is a massive culture of pro-nukers that are right now wanting to “reconfigure” the entire nuclear weapons complex. They have spent the last 10 years privitising most of its workload to rightwingers like Bechtel.

    The key here will be how far this guy is willing to go to reverse the Bush doctrine and how it plays out in the nuclear weapons field.

    Nuclear power Gen 2 is a dead rat. The current economic crisis has all but killed the push to reboot a fake uranium mining market here. It will only stay alive if funded or USEC suceeds in their Supreme Court attempt at killing the HEU-LEU contract with Russia.

    The concern here is that Chu will give mild lip service to environmentalists but not really push full court.

    The electric industry is a bunch of T-Rex’s with no brains. They only want huge cost plus, baseload powersources that banks and them can rip everybody off with. They need to be taken out behind the barn and put out of their misery.

    If this doesn’t happen the technical potentials of solar and wind will whither away just as it did last time around. For you younsters out there, California had the largest wind company in the world. All of it was killed off by Reagan and the utility industry.

    The corporate likes of PG&E are all about spin up front. The real problem is buried in the larger corporate agenda that Sharon Beder exposed in her book Power Play. The electric industry is pushing this agenda at the global level, not just here in the US. In the US, two of the most fought over New Deal acts were taken out both having to do with energy issues. FDR ran and won on a public power platform that has long been completely censored by the corporate media for a reason. The private electric power industry WAS the main bubble in the 1929 collapse. Almost 50% of all stock transactions at the time were over the huge push for electricity and electrical appliances. General Electric and JP Morgan were pushing to create an AT&T of electric power in the US when things went bad.

    It was FDR and the public power movement that helped put in the huge public works programs that gave farmers and poorer regions of the country electricity for the first time. Against the will of the IOUS. (Invenstor Owned Utility systems)

    Glass Steagall and more importantly the 1935 Public Utilities Holding Companies Act (PUHCA) were two of the most fought over pieces of legislation of the New Deal with PUHCA being bar far the most. Morgan’s empire fought the bill in courts for nearly 15 years.

    In 2005 the Republicans were able to repeal this critical peice of legislation that has long kept the IOUS trapped in regulated territories. They are now free to create their longed for AT&T agenda. Note that Clinton was the first president to ever give a waiver to PUHCA and he did so to none other than Enron.

    Imagine, France’s EDF is now trying to buy into the US nuclear market with their agressive attack on Constellation. Entergy recently made an agressive takeover bid for NRG. Watch out folks, if you think deregulation of the economic market was bad, wake up and smell the burnt power lines. The publicrats have done the same thing to the power industry and they were just waiting for all that pronuclear money being promised to finance the merger mania. BUBBLE BUBBLE BUBBLE!!!!

    Bush has done a great job of smashing the state, and the global economy. But there are still a lot of bears out there. Note, that throughout the 1930’s depression only the Enron mirror (Morgan’s bear attack on the Insull empire) took a chunk out of the growth in the electric industry. FDR’s TVA, CVP BPP and REI were the only thing that brought most of this country into the 20th century. My grandparents didn’t get electricity until the 1950’s thanks to the greedy private IOUS..

    A few reality pointers.

    1. California’s biggest utility companies have been in pitched battles for years over the local choice options that would allow them decide the kind of power sources they wish. IOUS are not democratic entities. If they can make more money off of you selling coal they will.

    2. Probably the biggest carrot being offered utilities in California by the state government is the idea of paying them to promote conservation. Without giving them money to reduce the amount of electricity being used the companies just won’t go for conservation approaches which are the single most important agenda out there. The cheapest power source around is the development of energy efficiency standards. We could reduce our electric use by up to 45% just by doing things better, like switching emmediately to LED lightbulgs etc.

    3. Micro Power should be the number one agenda especially for homeowners. Don’t rent power when you can own it! The city of Berkeley CA. has initiated a program to put solar panels on people’s homes using city funding to set up 20 year mortgages on people’s homes. Here’s the link to program.
    Here’s the link to program.

  46. The question is, does Chu WANT this post? When Prof. Robert Winston was selected for the house of Lords in the UK, he didn’t want the post, he’s a biologist, not a politician. Problem was, if he didn’t take the post, the next person in the selection list wasn’t half as good and Prof. Winston seemed to feel representing the people was important enough to give up what he was working on.

  47. “(1) Chu believes science is real. (2) Chu believes climate change is real.”

    Maybe I’m over-reacting, but I don’t think that the concepts expressed by the words “believes” and “science” are compatible. A believing scientist is a contradiction, don’t you think?

  48. I agree with the post above. It was deregulation that got us where we’re. It needs to be a democratic/government program, not one where the dollar is the negotiator. We’re appealing to our base instincts by deregulating something so crucial to life and prosperity, and this will lead to problems that we’ll likely justify because it’s such a complicated issue. Imagine that for a moment. We’ll justify it. In our own sick, twisted way, we’ll make sense of the senseless – using faith as our primary tool.

    Roads are a public asset. I believe that electricity should be too, and it would also fall under the umbrella of state/local/federal government. It shouldn’t be private because I believe electricity is as important as the air we breathe. Humans in this modern day need it, and we’ll get it to the poorest of us quicker through government than through the private corporate sector – which will drag its feet as long as it can with old, polluting technologies, disregarding the poorest of those on earth as well.

    It all comes down to the problem of corporations becoming like an organism. The corporation seeks to survive, at the expense of other living things. That’s why we have government. We have government to keep things balanced and accounted for. This is also why people don’t want people like al gore running the show – they’re afraid he’ll turn hte markets his way and make what was a moral duty a greedy gamble. Al is already known for doing this. Keeping our planet clean and our people healthy should not be put in the hands of an economic mogul – it should be in the hands of all people.

    And note that this is my very inflammatory opinion, and I’ll admit I’m no better than anyone else. I am entitled to my opinion, however.

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