Steven Chu

A 1997 winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics, Steven Chu is an American physicist who was the 12th Secretary of Energy in the United States. He is known for his work on cooling and also trapping atoms using laser light, and this is what won him the Nobel Prize. He is one of the leading advocates of nuclear power and renewable energy use because he believes that shifting the source of power from fossil fuels can help in battling the adverse effects of climate change.


Childhood Years and Family Background

Steven Chu comes from a family of scholars and it is no shock to have such a brilliant mind considering his family’s background. Before he was born in February 28, 1948 in St. Louis Missouri, Ju Chin Chu, his father, had moved to the United States in order to further his education in chemical engineering and attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. After two years, Ching Chen Li, Steven Chu’s mother, joined his father to study economics. Before his parents had their academic endeavors in the U.S., his paternal grandfather and one of his uncles had also studied science-related courses before returning to their homeland in China. Later on, his father had teaching positions at Washington University and Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute.

There is no denying how important good education was for Steven Chu’s family, and most of his elders had Ph.D.’s in either engineering or science. His brothers had earned several MDs, Ph.D.’s, and a law degree when he had just finished one advanced degree. To Steven, he felt as if schoolwork was a chore rather than intellectual adventures, but it was Geometry which made him appreciate mathematics. Strange as it may sound to some, his life did not revolve around academic endeavors. He also had a fondness for making plastic model warships and planes, and there was a time when he began creating numerous gadgets with several moving parts. He, along with a friend even played with their own homemade rockets and made a business out of a chemistry-based hobby by testing the soil of neighbor’s lawns for missing nutrients and acidity levels.

Educational Background and Career

Despite his seemingly mediocre academic achievements when compared to his brothers and relatives back in high school while he studied at Garden City High School, Steven Chu received his B.S. Degree in Physics as well as his B.A. Degree in Mathematics from the University of Rochester in 1970. In 1976, he had support from a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship when he went to work on getting his Ph.D. from University of California.

After he had gotten his doctorate, he remained in the University of California for two more years as a postdoctoral researcher before he joined Bell Labs where he along with his co-workers worked on their laser-cooling project which won them the Nobel Prize for Physics. After his career in Bell Labs, he became one of the Physics professors at Stanford University back in 1987, and served as the university’s Physics Department Chair from 1990-1993 and again in 1999-2001.

During his years in Stanford, he along with three other university professors started what was known as the Bio-X Program. It focused on the interdisciplinary research involved in medicine and biology. They also played a key role for the procurement of funds for the Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology.

The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory became a center for research efforts on solar energy and biofuels under Steven Chu’s leadership. It was August of 2004 when he was appointed as Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s director, and later on he joined the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology as well as UC Berkeley’s Department of Physics. His interest in solar energy research made him lead the Helios project whose aim is to find and develop ways on how to harness solar energy as a renewable energy source which can be used for transportation.

It was in 2009 when he became the 12th Secretary of Energy of the United States, and he was sworn under President Barack Obama’s administration. He is the first person to have become a member of the U.S. Cabinet after winning the Nobel Prize. He served from 2009-2013 and had continued his other scientific work alongside his being the Secretary of Energy.


Steven Chu is a vocal advocate and openly expresses his support for more research efforts for the use of nuclear power and renewable energy. He has also become a member of the Copenhagen Climate Council which was created in order to build momentum for the United Nations Climate Change Conference held in Copenhagen back in 2009. He believes that by shifting away from using fossil fuels, the negative effects of climate change as well as global warming can be battled. In 2009 and 2011, Chu was a speaker at the National Science Bowl and he talked about how important the science students of America are, and that they will carry on environmental planning as well as other global initiatives.

Another advocacy he is known for is making the roofs of buildings as well as roads have white or at least other lighter colors in order to reflect more sunlight back to space to help mitigate the effects of global warming. This vision was supported by Samuel Thernstrom who expressed his support for Chu’s idea The American magazine, and said that this idea can indeed have an important role when it comes to the world’s climate concerns.

Awards and Other Recognitions

Apart from being a co-winner of the 1997 Nobel Prize for Physics award for their work on laser cooling for atoms, he has also received other awards including the Humboldt Prize in 1995 given by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, an honorary doctorate given by the Boston University, Harvard University, Penn State University, and Washington University in St. Louis, and an honorary degree he got from Yale University and Polytechnic Institute of New York University.

He has two sons from his previous marriage with Lisa Chu-Thielbar, and in 1997, married British American Jean Fetter who is an oxford-trained physicist.