Steven Chu was awarded a share of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1997 for work that helps to understand the interaction between light and matter. Even among Nobel laureates, he is particularly respected in the U.S. scientific community for his acumen and judgment on public policy issues.
American presidents, vice presidents and secretaries of state all have won the Nobel Peace Prize after their terms of office -- most recently former President Jimmy Carter and former Vice President Al Gore. However, Chu stands out as the first Nobel Prize winner for science ever to be appointed to a U.S. Cabinet.
He has repeatedly expressed his concern publicly about the Bush administration's lack of interest in developing any serious alternative energy technologies to coal and oil, and its lack of activity or even interest about the well-documented phenomenon of global climate change.
Chu's choice is a real message. After an administration that thumbed its nose at science, Obama has reached into the heart of the U.S. scientific community for the often overlooked but crucial position of energy secretary.
Chu is quite simply the most eminent American scientist ever selected to serve in a U.S. Cabinet. In choosing him, Obama once again has followed the example of his hero, President John F. Kennedy, who worked especially hard to elevate the dignity and influence of science in U.S. society and to boost its important in government policymaking.
Less well-known, Obama also is following the example of his other famous presidential hero, Abraham Lincoln. The freethinking, religiously skeptical Lincoln was noted for his passion for technology and new inventions during his years in the White House. He rose to eminence in Illinois as one of the state's leading lawyers representing the new railroads that were integrating the American West into the global economy in the mid-19th century through the use of what was then cutting-edge technology.
Chu also will stand out as Obama's second Asian-American Cabinet pick, following the selection of former U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric K. Shinseki as secretary of veterans affairs. As was the case in the Shinseki appointment earlier this week, Obama avoided political cronyism or loyal party mediocrities and reached out instead to pick an exceptionally experienced outsider with a remarkable career of solid achievement already under his belt.
Like Shinseki and Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, Obama's choice as homeland security secretary, Chu will be taking over a sprawling chaos of a department where morale is exceptionally low following years of lax administration, the fashionable pursuit of dubious fads and a deep-seated prejudice by Bush appointees against the regulatory functions of the very departments they were supposed to run.
Energy is a sprawling hodgepodge of a department that usually has been run badly but occasionally well. One of President Bill Clinton's energy secretaries, Bill Richardson, won unusually high applause running the department. Samuel Bodman, the current incumbent, has received particularly bad reviews.
Bodman, following the enthusiasm of his boss, President George W. Bush, bet big on corn ethanol, an enthusiasm of former CIA Director R. James Woolsey and the influential neoconservatives in the Bush administration. It also was criticized by most scientists for its absurdity in energy terms: It takes far more BTUs to produce ethanol from corn than the energy that actually can be extracted for use from the stuff.
Ethanol from sugarcane, which is widely grown in Brazil and could be grown in four U.S. states with semitropical summer climates, is vastly more efficient in energy terms. Obama is widely expected to remove or greatly reduce U.S. tariffs preventing importation and widespread use of sugarcane ethanol and to slash the multibillion-dollar subsidies for corn ethanol.
Chu is also likely to take a long, hard look at the Bush administration's faith in biomass research, into which it has plowed well over $1 billion. The technology to produce cost-effective biomass fuels -- even at the record energy prices of last summer, let alone at the recession-ravaged price lows of today -- remains totally unproven and even non-existent.
Many analysts believe focusing on developing better batteries that can retain electrical charge far longer and more efficiently is a crucially neglected area of research. Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain of Arizona focused on that issue during his election campaign.
Chu can be expected to revitalize alternative-energy research across the board. He also may focus on boosting domestic U.S. oil refining capacity, another huge area that Bush -- in this case, like Bill Clinton before him -- woefully neglected.
Chu's choice also signals that Obama may move early and vigorously to restore a generous flow of federal funding to U.S. stem cell research. The consensus in the scientific community is overwhelming on the essential nature of this measure that Bush opposed to the end in the face of all the medical evidence that no sustainable embryo or fetus would have been endangered by such activities. The United States has fallen far behind East Asian and Western European nations in stem cell research and investment since Bush imposed his much-criticized ban on federal funding.
Finally, Chu can be expected to try to bring a sense of reality and concrete achievement to the many romantic but vague ideas for expanding wind energy that have circulated for years. The biggest problem in creating wind farms across the prairie and Mountain West would be their vulnerability to bad weather, especially tornadoes in states like Kansas.
In picking Chu, Obama has signaled he wants a Sir Galahad at the Department of Energy to slay the dragon of excessive dependence on massive foreign oil imports, not a Don Quixote who will naively tilt at windmills or invest in romantic castles in the sky.
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