Steven Chu Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

A Scientist's Random Walk: Conversation with Steven Chu, Nobel Laureate, Physics; Geballe Professor of Physics and Applied Physics, Stanford University; February 13, 2004, by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Steven, welcome to Conversations.

Thank you.

Where were you born and raised?

I was born in St. Louis. Not raised there; I only spent a few years there. My parents then moved to Long Island. I was raised in suburb of New York City, Garden City.

Looking back, how do you think your parents shaped your thinking about the world and about science?

Oh, that's a tough call, because most of how they shaped -- how parents, all parents, shape people -- is very under the table. You're not really aware of it. I was aware of many things, though. My parents came from China. They were students. They came here as graduate students to go to MIT. Like many Chinese in higher education, they had a reverence for education. They communicated very clearly to me and my two brothers that one of the high things you could aspire to be is a scholar, just for the scholarship's sake, not so much as a stepping stone to some other job. That was communicated very well. While we were young, they would always say, "Read." They didn't care that much what we read, as long as we read. And that, again, was something that helped.

You didn't necessarily take to school like a fish to water; I read a short biography. You were a good student when you got interested, I guess, is the way to summarize it.

Well, you have to normalize this to what was happening in my [family]. I had an older brother who was an excellent student. He was two years older than me. We were in a school in Garden City. It was a very good public school, an excellent public school, and he went through this public school setting the highest cumulative average in the record of the school.

I see.

So I followed along two years later and the teachers would say, "Oh, you're Gilbert's brother. We expect you to do just as well." That was hard to really live up to. While he was setting records, I was kind of coming from behind. I was an A-minus student, and by my family's standards, this was appalling. He was very good. He was very structured and he would study the things he was supposed to study. And he was fundamentally a very good student.

I would get very interested in one thing and let something else lay [aside]. It wasn't really until I went to college where they didn't hear of my older brother that I was able to [come into my own].

But in high school you were turned on to science? How did that come about?

There were two things. One is I had a fantastic physics teacher as a junior.

In high school?

In high school. And then the same teacher as a senior in high school. This is someone who is naturally recognized. He was winning prizes for being an outstanding science teacher.

And his name was?

Thomas Minor.

I had two excellent mathematics teachers -- one in ninth grade, in geometry, and then a calculus teacher in the twelfth grade. And there, the mathematics was different than the other mathematics. [In] the other type of mathematics you learn how to do algebra and trigonometry and things like that. In those two subjects, it was mostly about logic and thinking, and putting together logical arguments. It was very different.

The physics and the logic/mathematics courses, I got very excited about.

You also, early on, liked to build things and do experiments, and litter your mother's living room with projects. Tell us a little about that and how that ultimately contributes to what you've become.

I don't know what it was, but since I was very young I loved building things. I loved building things with my hands. I would be given for Christmas a model set of airplanes or boats and things, and I loved to put them together. I would ask my parents for things like Erector Sets; these are little pieces of metal and screws. Unlike Lego blocks, you actually have to screw something together, it wasn't all pre-designed to make a boat or something like that. I loved doing those things.

In that respect, it was somewhat different than my two brothers. In many respects, my brothers and I are very similar, but in that respect, I seemed to love mechanical things in a way that was certainly nurtured by my parents, in that they said, "Okay, he wants to do these things. We'll buy toys like that for him." But my other two brothers didn't seem to like that.

Now, it turns out that working with your hands and building things gives you a spatial intuition that turned out to be invaluable once I became a scientist. I could see things in my head very clearly and rotate them around. This idea of picturing things geometrically has always been a part of my thinking. The layperson doesn't think of that in terms of physicists; they think in terms of mathematical equations. I only discovered later that most physicists do that.

So you went on to college, and you were freed of your brother, so to speak, as a model to emulate. Where did you do your undergraduate work?

I went to the University of Rochester. I applied for the Ivys; they didn't accept me. The University of Rochester was wonderful because it was an excellent school, and, as I said, my brother was an unknown; I could be my own person. I started working very hard in a regular way, still, but in a very directed way. What's wonderful about college is that beyond a few required courses, you can take what you are interested in.

There was another thing that happened in college that I wasn't really thinking of, and that is, as I studied more mathematics it actually affected my writing. My writing became more linear in its thinking, and you could definitely see logic in the writing that I didn't have when I was in high school or grade school. In my humanities courses the professors were [saying], "This is a coherent paragraph." I wasn't really thinking about that, but it was almost a magical transition from the mathematics I was studying.

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