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October 23 - 29, 1997
Photo courtesy Stanford News Service
|Shop Talk: Professor Steven Chu with graduate student Jamie Kerman (left) and post-doctoral student Vladan Vuletic (right) in a lab at Stanford's Varian Physics Building.|
Stanford Professor Steven Chu graduates to the rank of Nobel laureate
BY BERT ELJERA
When Professor Steven Chu got the early morning phone call last week informing him that he had won a share of the Nobel Prize in physics, his first reaction was one of overwhelming relief.
After his breakthrough work in 1985 on cooling down atoms with laser lights, Chu became what is known as "PNL," or pre-Nobel laureate. He was, in effect, a Nobel Prize-winner-in-waiting.
But that wait can seem like forever. Chu has friends who have waited 20 years to get the prize, and some have not received it at all. "You expect to graduate from college, but no one really has the right to expect the Nobel Prize," he said from his home in Palo Alto, Calif. "If you get it, keep calm."
Now, he can move on, he said.
Nevertheless, perhaps only a victory over archrival UC Berkeley in football would have matched the euphoria gripping the Stanford campus last week as Chu, a professor of physics and applied physics at Stanford since 1987, became the second professor at the school this year to win a Nobel Prize.
Myron S. Coles was awarded the Nobel Prize in economics for his pioneering work on ways to value stock options and other investments. Coles shared his prize with Harvard professor Robert C. Merton.
In all, 17 scholars from Stanford have won the Nobel Prize, underscoring the school's leading role in scientific research and discovery.
The Nobel Prize is awarded each year by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, an independent, nongovernmental organization founded in 1739 to promote research in mathematics and the natural sciences.
The prizes in physics and chemistry have been awarded since 1901 and the prize in economics since 1968. The academy also awards prizes--each worth $1 million--in medicine, literature, and peace.
Chu, 49, shares the prize with Claude Cohen-Tannoudji, a French professor, and William D. Phillips, who works at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Md.
"It's a singular honor," Chu said, adding that he does not, however, need the prize to validate his work. "I think there is a circle of people who know the value all along. They know how good it is. Some people take the prize grander than it is."
But Chu insists he is not taking the award lightly. After all, it recognizes more than a decade of scientific study that could eventually have a far-reaching effect on people's lives.
Chu, who first developed his atom-cooling technique while employed at AT&T Bell Laboratories in Holmdel, N.J., perfected the process that now allows researchers to trap atoms so they can be studied.
|Photo by Paul Sakuma/AP|
|Chu explains some of his research at a news conference at Stanford University last week just hours after learning he had won the Nobel Prize.|
Along with his fellow awardees, Chu has developed methods of investigating the interplay between matter and radiation and, in the process, increased knowledge of how gases behave at low temperatures.
Imagine catching a shooting star: Chu's technique is quite similar. Atoms move as fast as 4,000 kilometers per hour, disappearing before they can be observed. But by lowering the temperature to near absolute zero, the speed falls greatly and the chilled atoms can be trapped and captured for observation and study.
The method may lead to the design of atomic clocks with a precision 100 times greater than the current level, space navigation instruments, and devices for oil exploration.
In addition, work has started on the design of interferometers, which precisely measure gravitational forces, and atomic lasers that may be used in the future to manufacture very small electronic components.
"In the next few decades, there will be a flowering of applications," Chu said. "Part of the reason is that technique can easily be transported to other lands and many groups around the world."
Although Chu said he does not know how far his discovery will impact people's lives in the future, he has seen enough scientific research to realize that while the full impact is not apparent at the time, it has virtually changed the world.
Lasers, discovered by Chu's mentor, Stanford professor Arthur Schawlow, are one example. "When it was discovered, it was not known what impact it would have," Chu said. "No one knew it could be used for diagnosis and surgery. No one had an idea it could be used in communications and printing."
Lasers and transistors are perhaps the greatest inventions of the past 50 years. Chu said that he does not think his discovery regarding atom behavior will have as wide an impact.
Still, it's an impressive achievement for Chu, a second-generation Chinese American who has pursued a life as an academic and researcher against the wishes of his father, Ju Chin.
Chin, who holds a Ph.D. in chemical engineering from the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), wanted his son to be an architect.
"He said so many smart people are in physics," Chu said. "It would be very hard on me. He said I could draw well and have an artistic sense."
Chu followed his heart's desire anyway. He received bachelor's degrees in physics and mathematics from the University of Rochester in New York. In 1976, he earned his Ph.D. from UC Berkeley, where he was a postdoctoral fellow until 1978.
Chu's desire for a life as an academic is not at all surprising; it's in his blood. His grandfather on his mother's side was sent to the United States to study by the Chinese government before the Communist takeover. A great uncle was a physicist who studied under a French Nobel Prize winner. He became a minister of education in China, but was forced to leave, along with Chu's grandfather, when the Communists took power in 1949.
Chu's parents also left China in the 1940s. His father, who is 77 and lives in a retirement home in Palo Alto, and his mother, Ching Chen, met at a roving university during the war with Japan. Both later enrolled at MIT.
When they got married, Chu's father got a job as an assistant professor at Washington University in St. Louis, where Chu was born the oldest of three boys.
The family moved to Queens, New York, where Chu's father got a job as a professor at Brooklyn Polytechnic University. When Chu was about 3 years old, the family moved again to Garden City on Long Island, New York, where the boys spent most of their childhood.
Garden City was at the time a bedroom community of about 25,000 people--predominantly white, extremely wealthy in some areas but with middle-class families in others.
"There were I believe only one or two other Asian families," Chu said. "We essentially grew up and made friends with Americans. But my parents were active in the Asian community."
He said he did not feel discriminated against while growing up. "There was a little, but not much. A few kids would taunt us, call us names. But for the most part, we were generally accepted," he said.
Chu said that he and his brothers never learned to speak Chinese because his parents spoke to them in English. While in the fourth grade, he was sent to a Saturday Chinese school organized by parents concerned that their children were not learning about Chinese culture.
"But by the time you're in fourth grade, and all your friends are Americans, they try to take you to a Chinese school, you rebel," said Chu, who, like most Chinese Americans, refer to white kids as Americans, and themselves as Chinese, even if born in the United States.
Chu's older brother, Gilbert, 51, is a professor at Stanford Medical School; the youngest, Morgan, 47, is a lawyer who lives in Southern California.
Chu said that he has had his share of activism, and was affected by the student movement at UC Berkeley. He opposed the Vietnam War, but was not very involved in demonstrations and other mass actions at the time. "I didn't think smashing windows was an effective way of showing my concern," Chu said.
Still, Chu said he felt discrimination then and that the "residuals" still exist. "That's why many Asians go into science and engineering," he said. "They're more race-blind. If you go into business for yourself, that's fine, too, but not corporate America."
However, he said that feeling like victims will get Asian Americans nowhere. "If you handle it well, people eventually get past whatever pre-conceived notions that they may have about you."
Although belatedly, Chu is trying to learn at least one Chinese dialect--Mandarin. He has been to China twice and Taiwan twice. If he could stay in China at least six months, he believes he would become fluent in Chinese.
Travel, however, is practically impossible for him now. Chu, who lives on the Stanford campus with his two children, Geoffry, 16, and Michael, 13, has been divorced from his first wife for the past five years.
Jean Fetter, his fiancée, is an American of British descent and a former physics professor at San Jose State University. They met in 1987 at a tennis game. At the time, Fetter was the dean of admissions at Stanford. She is currently on sabbatical.
"He is thinking about physics all the time," Fetter said of Chu. "It's very hard to determine what his work hours are. He is usually home by 8 p.m." Fetter said Chu likes to exercise and loves to ride his mountain bike, play tennis, and swim. He also likes classical music and Puccini operas.
"We've had very little time to talk about anything," Fetter said, adding that their phone has been ringing off the hook since the Nobel Prize announcement last Wednesday.
The prize will be awarded on Dec. 10--Fetter's birthday--in Stockholm. "That's a very exciting birthday present," she said.
A year before reaching 50, Chu said that, in a sense, he may have achieved immortality already with his Nobel Prize.
"I'm in the big book," he said, referring to the elite list of physicists who have won the Nobel Prize that includes Albert Einstein, who won in 1921. "But I don't think I'm any better than the people who did not win it."
Chu said that he will stay at Stanford and continue his research work. "I think I have another 20 years of very active scientific work," he said. "I hope I have a few good ideas left in me."
With his receipt of the 1997 prize in physics, Steven Chu joins a handful of Asian Americans who have shared the honor of being named Nobel laureates. The following was culled from a list of 181 prize winners in the U.S.
YUKAWA, HIDEKI,Japan, Kyoto Imperial University and Columbia University, New York, N.Y., b. 1907, d. 1981:
"for his prediction of the existence of mesons on the basis of theoretical work on nuclear forces"
The prize was awarded jointly to:
YANG, CHEN NING, China, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, N.J., b. 1922; and
LEE, TSUNG-DAO, China, Columbia University, New York, N.Y., b. 1926:
"for their penetrating investigation of the so-called parity laws which has led to important discoveries regarding the elementary particles"
The prize was divided equally between:
ESAKI, LEO, Japan, IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center, Yorktown Heights, N.Y., b. 1925; and
GIAEVER, IVAR, U.S.A., General Electric Co., Schenectady, N.Y., b. 1929 (in Bergen, Norway):
"for their experimental discoveries regarding tunneling phenomena in semiconductors and superconductors, respectively"
The prize was divided equally between:
RICHTER, BURTON, U.S.A., Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, Stanford, Calif., b. 1931; and
TING, SAMUEL C. C., U.S.A., Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Cambridge, Mass., (European Center for Nuclear Research, Geneva, Switzerland), b. 1936:
"for their pioneering work in the discovery of a heavy elementary particle of a new kind"
The prize was awarded jointly to:
CHU, STEVEN, U.S.A., Stanford University, Stanford, Calif., b. 1948;
COHEN-TANNOUDJI, CLAUDE, France, Collège de France and École Normale Supérieure, Paris, France, b. 1933; and
PHILLIPS, WILLIAM D., U.S.A., National Institute of Standards and Technology, Gaithersburg, Md., b. 1948:
"for development of methods to cool and trap atoms with laser light"
The prize was awarded jointly to:
HERSCHBACH, DUDLEY R., U.S.A., Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass., b. 1932;
LEE, YUAN T., U.S.A., University of California, Berkeley, Calif., b. 1936 (in Hsinchu, Taiwan); and
POLANYI, JOHN C., Canada, University of Toronto, Toronto, b. 1929:
"for their contributions concerning the dynamics of chemical elementary processes"
Physiology or Medicine 1987
TONEGAWA, SUSUMU, Japan, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Cambridge, Mass., b. 1939:
"for his discovery of the genetic principle for generation of antibody diversity"
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