My last words on the Steven Chu front
Previous words on Chu here and here.
1) A great 57-minute TV interview with Chu, conducted in 2004 by Harry Kreisler of UC Berkeley as part of his generally-great "Conversations with History" series.
In my experience over decades of conducting interviews, the people who are truly the greatest masters of their own rarefied fields often have a gift for explaining complex problems to outsiders in vivid, non-condescending ways. Think years ago of Richard Feynman, of Caltech, plunging a rubbery "O-ring" into a glass of ice water to demonstrate how it might have become rigid and failed during the launch of the doomed space shuttle Challenger. Think of Bill Clinton illustrating any point with one of his home town analogies.
Chu comes across very much that way in this session. Modest, funny, and willing to explain the work of of a scientist in terms and images most people can understand. A scientific explainer-in-chief? It would be nice to have such a person once more on the public scene.
2) Let's analogize one more time to another great Obama cabinet pick, Eric Shinseki as Secretary of Veterans Affairs. "Identity politics" was not the most important element in Shinseki's selection. "Policy politics" was what mattered most: Shinseki's having been right about Iraq. But there was an additional grace note, noted in particular by many Japanese-Americans, that a military leader named Shinseki was given this honor on the anniversary of Pearl Harbor Day.
So too with Chu. Identity politics is a second- or third-order aspect of this nomination. Mainly his choice says something about the role of real science in public life, about America's commitment to retain its leadership as a research power, and about the redoubling of scientific/technical efforts to deal with energy and climate problems. But in karmic terms it doesn't hurt that Chu, who was born in St. Louis of Chinese parents, will head the very department that, under then-secretary Bill Richardson, was involved in the Wen Ho Lee imbroglio in the late 1990s. (In brief: Lee, who was born in Taiwan and who worked at Los Alamos, was accused of massive theft of U.S. nuclear secrets on China's behalf. The NY Times loudly trumpeted this story. Eventually nearly all the charges were dropped, and the presiding federal judge apologized to Lee for government excesses.) Again, this is not a reason to have chosen him, but it's worth noticing.