Bradford Plumer in The New Republic:
In the winter of 1984, a young scientist named Steven Chu was working as the new head of the quantum electronics division at AT&T's Bell Labs in Holmdel, New Jersey. For months, he'd been struggling to find ways to trap atoms with light so that he could hold them in place and study them better. It was an idea he'd picked up from an older colleague, Arthur Ashkin, who had wrangled with the problem all through the 1970s before finally being told to shut the project down–which he did, until Chu came along. (“I was this new, young person who he could corrupt,” Chu later joked.) Now Chu, too, had hit an impasse until, one night, a fierce snowstorm swirled through New Jersey. Everyone at Bell had left early except for Chu, who lived nearby and decided to stay a bit longer. As he watched the snow drift outside, he realized they'd been approaching the problem incorrectly: He first needed to cool the atoms, so that they were moving only as fast as ants, rather than fighter jets; only then could he predict their movements and trap them with lasers. It was a key insight, and Chu's subsequent work on cooling atoms eventually earned him a share of the Nobel Prize in physics.
While it may sound inevitable in retrospect, big breakthroughs like that don't come along too often. Nowadays, though, Chu is betting that they will– and must. As the U.S. energy secretary, Chu has been tasked with reshaping the country's trillion-dollar energy economy, to reduce America's reliance on fossil fuels and cut greenhouse-gas emissions 80 percent or more by mid-century- -essential to avoiding catastrophic climate change. It's an enormous goal, and Chu believes the only way to achieve it is with multiple Nobel-caliber leaps in energy technology. “I mean technology that is game-changing, as opposed to merely incremental,” he told Congress in March–technology that, as a recent Department of Energy (DOE) task force described it, will require an understanding of basic physics and chemistry “beyond our present reach.”
Not everyone agrees that the fate of the planet hinges on such far-reaching advances.