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Stanford Report, October 22, 1997

Chu receives Nobel: 10/22/97

A Nobel for Chu — three in a row for physics


After he successfully chilled atoms to ultralow temperatures and then trapped them with laser light, physicist Steven Chu ran into his bosses' boss at Bell Labs. "I sat down next to him and said, 'Guess what? We've managed to trap atoms.'

"He replied, 'Great. What can you do with trapped atoms?'

"I said, 'I don't know, but isn't it great?' "

It turned out to be.

On Oct. 15, Chu learned that he would share the Nobel Prize in physics for the work on the fundamental interplay between light and atomic particles that he began in 1985 at Bell and continued at Stanford.

His co-winners are Claude Cohen-Tannoudji, a professor at the Collège de France and École Normale Supérieure in Paris, and William D. Phillips, who works at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Md.

The techniques they have developed independently are being used to design more precise atomic clocks for use in space navigation; atomic interferometers to provide ultra-precise measurements of gravitational forces; and atomic lasers, which might one day be used to manufacture extremely small electronic components.

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Chu, the Theodore and Frances Geballe Professor of Physics and Applied Physics, almost did not get the phone call from Stockholm confirming his selection. Academy officials had tried to reach him in the middle of the night using the peninsula's old 415 area code. Their calls wouldn't go through and the phone system did not tell them that a new area code was required.

So when Chu got a 3 a.m. phone call from a radio reporter asking him to comment on winning this year's Nobel prize, Chu, like many previous laureates, thought it was a hoax and refused to comment. ("I have a lot of practical jokers in my lab," he notes.)

But then the deluge of calls began, and by daybreak Chu already had given more than 20 phone interviews to reporters from around the nation and the world. Television crews showed up at his doorstep at 6 a.m. to tape his reaction, and a 10 a.m. news conference in Tresidder Union was beamed around the world.

The academy finally reached Chu at 1 p.m., 11 hours after the official announcement, and he became Stanford's third winner of the Nobel Prize in physics in three years.

During the barrage of calls from reporters, Chu took time to call his family: his brothers, Gilbert Chu, M.D., a professor of oncology at Stanford School of Medicine, and Morgan Chu, a Los Angeles intellectual property lawyer; his sleepy but elated sons, Michael, 13, and Geoffrey, 16. and his father, Ju Chin Chu, a retired professor of chemical engineering who taught at a number of American universities, most notably Brooklyn Polytechnic University.

Ju Chin Chu was born near Shanghai, but left China in the mid-1940s. He has long been a member of Taiwan's most distinguished scholarly society, the Academica Sinica. Recently, when Steven Chu was named a member, they became one of the few father-son teams to be so honored. For years the elder Chu had been telling his physicist son that he was ready and willing to accompany him to Stockholm. "I'll pay my own fare!" he often has said. Wednesday morning, his son ended the phone call by saying, "Get ready to go to Sweden."

Asian interest

Winning the prize boosted Chu to celebrity status in both Taipei and Beijing. He was already well known in both capitals, having met with leaders from both countries. So great was the media interest that Chu held a second news conference on Thursday specifically for Asian journalists, who expressed less interest in his scientific discoveries than in his life and his opinions about subjects such as Asian education.

Chu opened the session by saying that, while his parents are Chinese, "I am an American. I was born here and raised here and the United States has invested heavily in my education. The Nobel Prize does not make me an expert on politics. I hold opinions, but they may be opinions out of ignorance."

Chu was born Feb. 28, 1948, in St. Louis, and raised primarily on Long Island, N.Y. He earned his bachelor's degree in 1970 from the University of Rochester in New York, with dual degrees in physics and mathematics, and a doctorate in physics from the University of California-Berkeley in 1976. He was a postdoctoral fellow at UC-Berkeley until 1978, when he joined AT&T Bell Laboratories (now part of Lucent Technologies) in New Jersey. In 1987 he moved to the departments of physics and applied physics at Stanford.

Chu has been on the list of possible Nobel prize winners for a number of years. He said that he tried each year not to get his hopes up ­ and expressed relief that the waiting is over. He also downplayed the importance of his selection, at one point saying that the main reason he got the award was because he was lucky.

Chu noted that he and his colleagues were not being honored for an "eureka experiment" like the discovery of superfluidity in helium-3 that won fellow physics Professor Douglas Osheroff the Nobel Prize last year. Instead, "It was for a body of many experiments done not only by the three that were honored today, but also by a number of other truly fantastic physicists."

Taught course

Despite all the media interest, Chu broke the Nobel day news conference to prepare for his 11 a.m. quantum mechanics course. When he stopped by his office, he saw that the physics department notice board was festooned with balloons and the greeting "Congrat-Chu-lations," and his office was decorated and filled with messages from friends and well-wishers.

Most of the graduate students in his class were already seated when he reached the lecture hall. Salted among them were colleagues such as Calvin Quate, the Leland T. Edwards Professor of Electrical Engineering (research); Stephen Harris, the Kenneth and Barbara Oshman Professor of Applied Physics; and Chu's companion, Jean Fetter, who holds a physics doctorate from Oxford. They gave Chu a standing ovation.

A few minutes after Chu launched into his scheduled lecture, a student spoke up, "Professor Chu, can we just hear about laser cooling?"

"You're missing one of my best lectures," Chu groused. "There's a lot of philosophy in this one." Then, obviously delighted, he launched into a detailed explanation of just how he had used lasers to chill and trap sodium atoms.

As he raised the lecture hall's projection screen to use the blackboard. Chu discovered a poem, drafted on the spur of the moment by Richard Swartz, one of his doctoral students. Titled "with homage to William Blake," it began:

Sodium, Sodium burning bright

In the coils of the night

What great hand, what great eye

Trapped thy fearful symmetry?

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