Steven Chu: ‘I’m in the process of learning chemistry’

Steven Chu

Source: © Peter Strain @ Début Art

The Nobel-winning physicist on learning chemistry, staying informed and speaking out

I come from a very scientific background, both my mother’s and father’s side. I think the expectation for the three brothers in our family and seven cousins was that we’d all be scientists. I was thinking of physics even as early as junior year of high school. When I went to college, I did both physics and mathematics, but ended up favouring physics. I loved physics because you didn’t have to memorise things. It was simple, yet very demanding intellectually. There’s nowhere else where you can have theories that can predict what will happen to the 12th or 15th decimal places, then go into the lab, measure it and find it agrees with experiments.

I’m in the process of learning chemistry. Will I ever learn it the way let’s say a synthetic organic chemist did? No, probably not. But at least I can become conversant in chemistry and begin to make contributions on the chemical parts of my projects. We were looking at a lot of structural data of how a particular protein motor works. For the first time, I really got into looking at the x-ray crystallographic structures, where the potential bonds were, what they’re doing, things like that.