Federal energy secretary Steven Chu is Caltech’s main commencement speaker

Energy Secretary Dr. Steven Chu gestures while receiving an honorary Doctor of Science during commencement ceremonies June 4, 2009 in Harvard Yard in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Energy Secretary Dr. Steven Chu gestures while receiving an honorary Doctor of Science during commencement ceremonies June 4, 2009 in Harvard Yard in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Darren McCollester/Getty Images

A man who once described himself as his family’s academic black sheep is the main commencement speaker today at Caltech in Pasadena. KPCC’s Cheryl Devall says the special guest has done pretty well for himself.

He’s federal energy secretary Steven Chu – the son, brother, nephew, and cousin of scholars and professionals educated at top-tier universities. In the biographical sketch he wrote for his 1997 Nobel Prize in Physics, Chu called his academic performance decidedly mediocre in comparison to his family. He preferred playing sports and building model planes and buildings.

But he developed a knack for geometry, and later for physics and calculus. Eventually, Chu earned his Ph.D. from UC Berkeley, worked at Bell Labs, and taught at Stanford. A dozen years ago he shared the Nobel Prize in Physics with two scientists for their work on methods to cool and trap atoms with laser light.

Between the prize and his present job in the Obama administration, Chu supervised the Energy Department’s Lawrence Livermore Lab in Northern California. About 500 undergraduate and graduate students are scheduled to receive degrees at Caltech’s 115th commencement.

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