The geek in charge at the Department of Energy

Speaking at MIT, Steven Chu finds an audience that understands him a little better than the jokers on Capitol Hill.

Published May 14, 2009 8:55PM (EDT)

Since Steven Chu's nomination as secretary of energy, most of our opportunities to see him talk have come during testimony before various congressional committees. Chu is generally a model of clarity and pretty deft in handling some of the more absurd ridiculousness thrown at him by legislators, but the forum is not one in which he is trained to shine.

Addressing a roomful of scientists and students at MIT on Tuesday, however, gave Chu a chance to let his geek flag fly.  In a packed auditorium, he delivered MIT's  Compton Lecture on the topic "The Energy Problem and the Interplay between Basic and Applied Research." It must have been a huge relief not to have to dumb himself down -- this was an audience primed to laugh appreciatively at jokes about microscopy involving the word "angstrom." I just spent a little over an hour watching it, and I had to marvel, once again, at the fact that a real scientist, a fervent believer in the fundamental importance of basic scientific research, is the man in charge at the Department of Energy. (Thanks to Greentech Media for the tip.)

His lecture ranged across a wide variety of topics, from the number of Nobel Prizes that have been granted for advances in fertilizer technology (two and a half) to the energy efficiency improvements in American refrigerators to the history of Bell Labs and how advances in quantum physics paved the path from the vacuum tube to the transistor. Through it all, he expressed confidence and optimism in the premise that technological progress will allow us to confront the challenges of climate change and energy constraints. There's a lot of "exciting" science to be done, he said more than once, and he seemed thrilled at the prospect of spending the government's checkbook funding the "dazzling" work of the future.

Perhaps most important, while he touted likely advances in battery technology and solar power and genetically engineered biofuels, he was very clear on one point: The crucial front to make immediate progress on is energy efficiency and conservation. Buildings consume 40 percent of the energy used in the United States each year: Making them more energy efficient might not win Chu another Nobel Prize, but it could easily save us from having to build a few more power plants that we can't afford.

He finished with a slide of a picture of the Earth rising above the lunar landscape taken by the astronauts on Apollo 8.

"It's our home," said Chu. "Let's take care of it."

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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