It’s being reported that US President-Elect Obama will name the physicist Steven Chu as his Energy Secretary. Chu won the Nobel prize in 1997 (with Bill Phillips and Claude Cohen-Tannoudji) for his work on cooling and trapping atoms with laser light. One of the spin-offs from his discovery was the development of the “optical tweezers” technique, by which micron-size particles can be held and manipulated by a highly focused laser beam. Chu himself used this technique to manipulate individual DNA molecules, directly verifying the reptation theory of motion of long, entangled molecules. The technique has since become one of the mainstays of single molecule biophysics, used by a number of groups to characterise the properties of biological molecular motors.
Chu is currently director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, where one of his major initiatives has been to launch a major initiative to develop economic methods for harnessing solar energy on a large scale – Helios. One can get some idea of what Chu’s priorities are from looking at recent talks he has given, for example this one: The energy problem and how we might solve it (PDF). This concludes with these words: ‘“We believe that aggressive support of energy science and technology, coupled with incentives that accelerate the concurrent development and deployment of innovative solutions, can transform the entire landscape of energy demand and supply … What the world does in the coming decade will have enormous consequences that will last for centuries; it is imperative that we begin without further delay.”