American Institute of Physics
Press Release

Steven Chu Named Winner of the 2024 AIP Karl Compton Medal

JUN 26, 2024
Top prize for leadership in physics to be awarded to Stanford professor, Nobel laureate, and former Secretary of Energy for outstanding impact on our nation’s physical sciences enterprise.
Steven Chu

Steven Chu, winner of the 2024 Compton Medal

Steve Fisch

WASHINGTON, June 26, 2024 – The American Institute of Physics is proud to announce Steven Chu, former Secretary of Energy and Nobel laureate, as the winner of AIP’s 2024 Karl Taylor Compton Medal for Leadership in Physics.

Named after prominent physicist Karl Taylor Compton, the medal is now presented by AIP every two years to highly distinguished physicists who have made outstanding contributions to physics through exceptional statesmanship in science.

In selecting Chu, the committee awarded him “in recognition of his groundbreaking research and deep and wide-reaching leadership and impact on the national innovation ecosystem.”

“Steven Chu has spent years advocating for and delivering on investments in scientific research on the national stage, significantly improving our capacity to innovate across disciplines, to develop science-based solutions for climate change, and to provide opportunities for many scientists and engineers,” said Michael Moloney , CEO of AIP. “We are delighted to award him with the 2024 Karl Taylor Compton Medal for Leadership in Physics.”

Chu will receive the Compton medal, a certificate of recognition, and a check for $10,000.

Steven Chu was born in St. Louis, Missouri, and earned a Bachelor of Arts in mathematics and a Bachelor of Science in physics from the University of Rochester. He obtained a doctorate in physics from the University of California, Berkeley.

As a researcher at Bell Labs, Chu developed a method using laser light to cool and trap atoms, for which he was awarded the 1997 Nobel Prize in physics. Using his method, dubbed “optical molasses,” atoms were cooled to less than a thousandth of a degree above absolute zero, letting Chu and other researchers study the physics of this ultracold regime.

In 1987, Chu joined Stanford University as a professor, where he served as chair of the physics department from 1990 to 1993 and from 1999 to 2001. At Stanford, he expanded his research to include atom interferometry, polymer physics and biophysics, and molecular biology, focusing on protein folding and nucleic acid dynamics.

By the early 2000s, Chu shifted his attention to climate change and environmental issues. In 2004, he was appointed the director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, where he focused the lab on developing new energy technologies.

In 2009, he was appointed the 12th U.S. Secretary of Energy, where he served until 2013. Chu was the first scientist and the first Nobel Prize winner to be appointed to the Cabinet, and he used his position to advocate for solutions to climate change and advancing American energy independence.

After leaving the Cabinet, Chu returned to teaching and researching in California. He currently serves as the William R. Kenan, Jr., Professor of Physics, Professor of Molecular and Cellular Physiology and Professor of Energy Science and Engineering at Stanford University.

Chu has always viewed his role as encouraging other scientists to have more impact with their research.

“If I can get people excited about working on real problems, and using their science to help solve those problems, we can help save the world,” said Chu.

At Stanford, Chu regularly engaged in collaborative work with scientists in other fields, particularly biologists. He found this work so productive that it spurred him to help found Bio-X, a multidisciplinary institute at Stanford University dedicated to fostering connections between the physical and biological sciences, medicine, and engineering.

As director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL), Chu helped secure $500 million in funding to support the creation of the Energy Biosciences Institute (EBI), a public-private venture dedicated to developing new sources of energy and reducing the impacts of energy consumption. Since its founding, EBI-funded projects have led to over 1,500 publications and dozens of patents.

While serving at LBNL, Chu was part of a committee of the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine to provide advice to Congress on how science and technology in the U.S. could thrive in the 21st century. In one of the most impactful reports from the Academies in recent years, “Rising Above the Gathering Storm,” the recommendation was to nurture American intellectual capital by investing in education and basic research while providing more opportunities for scientists and engineers. These recommendations continue to shape science funding and policy nearly two decades later.

As Secretary of Energy, Chu oversaw the launch of the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), aimed at promoting and funding advanced energy technologies, and the introduction of several Energy Innovation Hubs designed to advance specific research goals in energy science and technology. These initiatives have since delivered billions of dollars in funding to over a thousand innovative research projects.

The Karl Taylor Compton Medal for Leadership in Physics was established by the American Institute of Physics in 1957 to recognize distinguished physicists who have made outstanding contributions to physics through statesmanship in science. Named in honor of Karl Taylor Compton for his service to the physics community, the award is primarily intended for U.S. physicists. It is presented every two years (historically every four) and includes a medal, a certificate, and a cash award of $10,000. The award is supported by a restricted/endowed fund.

Previous winners of the Compton Medal have been Paul Ginsparg, George Pegram, Karl Darrow, Henry Barton, Alan Waterman, Frederick Seitz, Ralph Sawyer, Samuel Goudsmit, Melba Phillips, Norman Ramsey, Victor Weisskopf, Mildred Dresselhaus, Leon Lederman, Neal Lane, Robert Birgeneau, and Helen Quinn.

As a 501(c)(3) non-profit, AIP is a federation that advances the success of our Member Societies and an institute that engages in research and analysis to empower positive change in the physical sciences. The mission of AIP (American Institute of Physics) is to advance, promote, and serve the physical sciences for the benefit of humanity.


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