Energy Secy advances nano science in spare time

Jul 07, 2010 By SETH BORENSTEIN , AP Science Writer

(AP) -- Some people relax by doing crossword puzzles, watching movies or reading a good book. In his down time, often while flying somewhere, Energy Secretary Steven Chu relaxes by tackling a scientific conundrum and stretching the limits of technology.

The result: Chu has a dense research paper being published online Wednesday in the prestigious scientific journal Nature. The title: "Subnanometre single-molecule localization registration and distance measurements."

It's all about seeing the small stuff. The really, really small stuff.

Chu's scientific colleagues call his study a major advancement in how tiny an object optical microscopes can see. Instead of objects measuring 10 - thought to be the about the smallest scientists could see using such microscopes - Chu came up with a system using existing technology to see objects, such as molecules and parts of cells, as small as half a nanometer. Half a nanometer is the distance separating molecules. The thickness of a human hair is between 50,000 and 100,000 nanometers.

This will allow scientists to see what's going on at the smallest scale in biology. Chu said electron microscopes can see this small, but they require techniques that aren't as useful for tissue, like . So Chu's method improves the precision of the more versatile .

This is Chu's second such meaty scientific paper in recent months, both published in the . The first, published in February, was following Albert Einstein's general relativity theory and better measuring how gravity slows time. Both were published while he has been , but started long before he took the job in January 2009. A third study is in the pipeline, Chu said.

None of this is the sort of thing Cabinet secretaries usually read, let alone write. For the Nobel Prize-winning physicist, it's how he takes a break from the problems of a devastating oil spill, global warming and high gas prices.

"I just consider it my equivalent of ... vegging out in front of the TV," he told The Associated Press.

Sitting on the president's Cabinet and doing science is what Chu calls a situation of working "on parallel universes." He said he long ago found that he has the ability to work on a scientific problem, let it go from his conscious mind, and then days or weeks later think about it again and not have to start over or even review it.

"I can think about things so I am not consciously aware I am thinking about them," he explained. Chu and colleagues at Stanford University and University of California at Berkeley had been working on the sub-nanometer paper off-and-on since 2003, long before he joined President Barack Obama's Cabinet.

It's complicated, but Chu's idea involved using two different colored lights, beams of tiny light and a few other techniques to reduce the signal-to-noise ratio in optical microscopes.

The work, published online Wednesday, is being hailed as a big breakthrough by three outside experts in the microscopy field.

"It's tremendously important," said John Fourkas at the University of Maryland. "It's something that in a few years everybody in the single molecule field will use if they are going to be on the cutting edge."

Explore further: Team finds electricity can be generated by dragging saltwater over graphene

More information: Nature: http://www.nature.com/nature

5 /5 (6 votes)
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sstritt
3.4 / 5 (7) Jul 07, 2010
This is just some fluff piece written by the MSM to try and impress upon us just how brilliant our energy secretary is (and possibly deflect attention away from the fact that oil is still gushing into the gulf)
This is supposed to be a science website, but there is practically nothing in the article describing this supposed breakthrough.
"Its complicated" Well then, guess we're all better off not knowing the details. My brain hurts already trying to figure out what a "beam of tiny light" is
frackingawesome
4 / 5 (4) Jul 07, 2010
@sstritt You got to be kidding me, this article is filled with an explanation of the breakthrough!

"Chu's idea involved using two different colored lights, beams of tiny light" IT MAKES SO MUCH SENSE!
Pyle
5 / 5 (4) Jul 07, 2010
You guys are both right. What we really need is a policy wonk in the Energy Secretary Cabinet post. Who wants a really smart guy to be part of the government solving problems and making decisions about how our country is run?
More importantly, why should a website supposedly focused on scientific breakthroughs publicize that a member of the President's cabinet is one of the foremost physicists and thinkers of our time? It might get some of us to pay attention and support our government and that would distract us from truly understanding "beams of tiny light".
If you are that interested in the science, read the paper. This was a decent enough summary for me and more importantly, highlighted somebody that should receive more recognition. The MSM may be evil, but this piece is NOT evidence of that.
Skeptic_Heretic
3 / 5 (2) Jul 07, 2010
Steven Chu, although brilliant by most standards, has no common sense, nor any form of ethics when it comes to his designated duty as energy secretary. This is my opinion, and I'd be happy to elaborate if asked.
DaveGee
2.3 / 5 (3) Jul 07, 2010
I have to agree... This man, as brilliant as he may be is NOT the man for the job he's been appointed to. He made a point that doing the science and writing the paper is his form of ... Vegging out in front of the TV.

Okay fair enough but taken at face value paints him in a somewhat pompous and or pretentious light but okay we get it you're a brainaic.

That being said how do you think the nation would feel once they learn our energy sec has been 'vegging out in front of the TV' or his version of it instead of dealing with the enormous problems we are currently faced with?

Finally, I'd go out on a limb and say this work took a lot longer than a few episodes of LOST and is hardly something you could even work on for just an hour or so a day.
Skultch
5 / 5 (3) Jul 08, 2010
I'd rather have a nerd running things than some corrupt "policy wonk," whatever that means. It's interesting how many people feel comfortable criticizing top tier executives, and yet have not one earthly idea what it takes to run a large agency. The guy probably works 11 hours a day on policy and administration, and people still feel betrayed that he does something different with the little free time he has. Selfish. It's also interesting how often those same people feel he is bragging about his intellectual abilities, forgetting that someone asked to interview him about his work.

The internet really shows the insecurities in people in general. This country is overcritical, IMHO. Public servants are not slaves and there is nothing wrong with them having a hobby.

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