- - Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Steven Chu, who is leaving his position as secretary of energy, might have been a great pick for the job, if only the real world worked like bad science fiction.

In comedies and sci-fi, we often encounter the “generic professor” character, the all-discipline scientist, the master of all areas of human knowledge. In real life, though, most scientists specialize. One might be an expert on the CCR5-Delta32 AIDS-resistance allele, another on the (mem)brane concept in string theory. The amount of study and the narrow focus needed to become a world-class scientist rarely allow scientists to move outside their fields.

When scientists get involved in politics and public policy, they often make fools of themselves. Scientists promoted now-discredited ideas about phrenology (linking traits such as criminality to the shapes of people’s heads), eugenics, white supremacy, nuclear winter and the “impossibility” of missile defense.

All-star polymaths do exist, and some have become effective politicians. Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin come to mind.

Steven Chu is no Ben Franklin.

There’s no question he’s a great physicist. He won the Nobel Prize (with two other scientists) for the development of techniques for trapping and cooling atoms with laser beams. That research makes it easier for scientists to study individual atoms, notably to study biology at the single-atom level. To his credit, he did important work to bring together the fields of biomedicine and physics, and he defied political correctness by speaking out in support of nuclear power.

The problem was that Mr. Chu overreached and became an activist. Science is supposed to be based on replicable experimentation, but little scientific research is independently verified. So trust plays a big role in science. That’s why so many scientists fell for the “evolutionary levels” concept that fed Nazism, and for the idea of catastrophic, man-made global warming.

President Obama, it is said, brags about having Mr. Chu among his top advisers. Never mind that the secretary of energy should know something about the oil and gas business, and that a random guy working a rig in the Gulf of Mexico is probably more qualified to be energy secretary. Mr. Chu is a famous scientist — and thus an expert on everything.

Inevitably, Secretary Chu fell for one con after another.

First, Solyndra, which received $535 million from taxpayers, is now bankrupt. Abound Solar ate up $374 million and is now bankrupt. Others include UniSolar, $100 million; Ener1, $118.5 million; and Nevada Geothermal, $98.5 million. All are bankrupt. Well, at least there’s A123 Systems, which was awarded $249 million and developed some impressive battery technology. Oh, wait — A123 was sold to the Chinese. How about LG Chem ($142 million)? The new jobs it promised ended up in South Korea.

Mr. Chu and his cohorts claim to have created 3.1 million “green jobs” — a term that includes janitors at solar-powered facilities, drivers of hybrid buses and people who fuel the buses, workers at antique shops and used-record stores, environmentalist professors, and oil company lobbyists. In other words, the term is a fraud.

What about “renewable energy”? Another fraud, given that wind and solar require, for example, rare-earth minerals that are most definitely not renewable.

The United States sits on massive energy reserves. Our country is the Saudi Arabia of both coal and natural gas and has abundant supplies of oil, but we can’t exploit our resources fully because anti-hydrocarbon ideology stands in the way.

Mr. Chu prefers a “glucose economy” based on glucose from tropical plants. Before his nomination he said, “Somehow we have to figure out how to boost the price of gasoline to the levels in Europe,” which would be $8 to $10 a gallon.

Most frighteningly, Mr. Chu dreams of a U.S.-China partnership, rooted in the theory of man-made global warming, that would set the course for the world economy.

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