Energy Secretary Steve Chu's official DOE portrait
Energy Secretary Steve Chu's official DOE portrait

The headline above appeared over an Associated Press story out of Washington in July. Apparently the most-Berkeley person in the Obama cabinet, Secretary of Energy Steven Chu (former director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Berkeley Ph.D. ’76), makes scientific contributions, and news, even while he takes it easy.

“In his down time, often while flying somewhere,” reported AP science writer Seth Borenstein, Chu “relaxes by tackling a scientific conundrum and stretching the limits of technology.” A recent leisure-time brainchild, “a dense research paper,” was published in the top scientific journal Nature, under the title “Subnanometre single-molecule localization registration and distance measurements.”

This may be Chu’s equivalent of “vegging out in front of the TV,” as he told the AP, but scientists in the field call his study a big breakthrough, “tremendously important.” In it, he reveals how scientists can use optical microscopes to see what’s happening at the smallest scale in biology, molecules and parts of cells as small as half a nanometer — far tinier than could be observed before with these conventional instruments. (Electron microscopes can record at that minuscule level, but are not as versatile for tissue samples, such as cancer cells.)

Chu must have had a few other moments to gather high-grade scientific wool during his time as secretary (between oil spills and whatnot), as this was his second paper published in Nature since taking office (the first was a better way to measure how gravity slows time, following Einstein’s theory of general relativity), and a third is “in the pipeline.” He did, however, start these thought patterns before taking office back in January of 2009. The AP story said Chu “long ago found that he has the ability to work on a scientific problem, let it go from the conscious mind, and then days or weeks later think about it again and not have to start over or even review it.”

After his grad-student and postdoc years at Berkeley, Chu went to Bell Labs, where he did research (on cooling and trapping atoms with laser light) that eventually won him, along with two others, the Nobel Prize in physics in 1997. He returned to Berkeley (from a faculty stint at Stanford) in 2004 to direct the Berkeley Lab and as a professor in two Cal departments, Physics and Molecular and Cell Biology.