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A man's gotta have a hobby: Energy Secretary Steven Chu publishes scientific research in his spare time.

Energy Secretary Steven Chu operates at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, March 23, 2010. (AP/Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Jason Richards)

Hmmm, so how about these federal employees who moonlight on the side? Maybe we're not keeping them busy enough? But Steven Chu, who just managed to publish yet another scientific paper while holding down his day job as U.S. secretary of energy, insists that his ongoing physics work isn't a side gig so much as it is fun.

"The first 70 or 75 hours a week absolutely go to my real job," Chu told us late last week on the phone from Texas, where he was tending to oil-spill business. "This is my hobby. Pleasure time. I could watch TV, I could go play golf -- or I could do this."

Pleasure time may not be what you want to devote to reading Chu's latest article in the journal Nature: "Subnanometre single-molecule localization, registration and distance measurements." It concerns a system that Chu and two junior colleagues devised to refine the ability of optical microscopes to detect and measure the distance between really, really, really small things going on inside biological matter -- down to the size of less than half a nanometer. The previous limit was 15 to 20 nanometers. (A human hair is about 50,000 nanometers wide.)

The work took seven or eight years, he said, most of it long before he joined the Obama team. They first submitted the paper about a year ago -- and while two reviewers loved it, he said, a third quibbled that it seemed too technical and suggested more demonstrations, which they crafted before resubmitting successfully.

So, being energy secretary doesn't get you any breaks?

"Oh, of course not. Definitely not!" Chu told us. "Having a Nobel Prize doesn't get you anywhere either." (He won his in 1997.) He added: "It's probably much more fun if you're a reviewer, and you can shoot down someone like that. That's the good thing about the review process -- they don't care who you are."

By The Reliable Source  |  July 13, 2010; 1:05 AM ET
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That's great. But does this enviro-wonk have the ability to manage a $26 billion organization with dozens of divisions and thousands of employees?

Posted by: RambleOn | July 13, 2010 1:12 PM | Report abuse

If he's got so much free time WHY DOESNT HE STOP THE OIL LEAK IN THE GULF!

Posted by: nuke41 | July 13, 2010 1:30 PM | Report abuse

If winning the Nobel Prize, publishing research in Nature, with decades and decades of experience in energy matters won't convince some people they can manage America's Ministry of Energy, it never will.

Congrats to Dr. Chu.

Posted by: paradelle | July 13, 2010 1:32 PM | Report abuse

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