1987 dis­cov­ery of su­per­con­duc­tor cre­ates ex­cite­ment

China Daily (Canada) - - ACROSSAMERICA - By MAY ZHOU in Hous­ton mayzhou@chi­nadai­lyusa.com

The No­bel Prize nom­i­nee’s name is well-known in the world of physics and sci­ence across the United States, Chi­nese main­land, Hong Kong and Tai­wan, and a list of his pro­fes­sional achieve­ments, awards and civic in­volve­ments cov­ers many pages. But it was his dis­cov­ery in 1987 that set the sci­en­tific com­mu­nity abuzz with ex­cite­ment.

Dr Paul Chin-wu Chu and his team an­nounced the dis­cov­ery a su­per­con­duc­tor that op­er­ated at mi­nus 139 de­grees Cel­sius and giv­ing sci­en­tists hope that superconductors could be­come use­ful in daily life one day. Soon other labs around the world el­e­vated the tem­per­a­ture even higher.

On March 18, 1987, the Amer­i­can Phys­i­cal So­ci­ety held a last-minute meet­ing fea­tur­ing 51 pre­sen­ta­tions on high-tem­per­a­ture superconductors. Chu was one of the key pre­sen­ters at the event, which drew so much at­ten­tion that it be­came known as the “Wood­stock of physics”.

Chu’s dis­cov­ery led to the cre­ation of the Texas Cen­ter for Su­per­con­duc­tiv­ity at the Univer­sity of Hous­ton (TSCUH), and un­der his lead­er­ship as the found­ing di­rec­tor and chief sci­en­tist it has be­come a world -class re­search cen­ter.

Born in Hu­nan prov­ince, China in 1941, Chu grew up in Tai­wan and came to the United States in 1963 for grad­u­ate study. Af­ter com­plet­ing his PhD in 1968, he worked briefly at Bell Labs, Ar­gonne Na­tional Lab, Stan­ford Univer­sity, Cleve­land State Univer­sity and the Los Alamos Sci­en­tific Lab­o­ra­tory. He be­came a pro­fes­sor of physics at the Univer­sity of Hous­ton in 1979, a po­si­tion he still holds to­day.

Chu has never stopped work­ing in the lab try­ing to find ways to raise the tem­per­a­ture of superconductors.

“I still work seven days a week and spend a lot of time in the lab. If we could raise the tem­per­a­ture of superconductors to room tem­per­a­ture, there would be a ma­jor in­dus­trial revo­lu­tion,” he said.

At the cur­rent stage, how­ever, its ap­pli­ca­tion is limited to space and some com­mu­ni­ca­tions equip­ment, ac­cord­ing to Chu.

Be­sides re­search, Chu has been in­volved in many other as­pects of sci­ence over the years. He has been an ad­min­is­tra­tor for aca­demic and re­search in­sti­tutes; holds po­si­tions on many sci­ence-re­view boards, re­search labs and re­search jour­nals in the US, China and other coun­tries, and works with the US govern­ment on poli­cies re­lated to sci­ence, na­tional se­cu­rity and higher ed­u­ca­tion.

“The US is fac­ing many chal­lenges right now. We are no longer the only eco­nomic su­per power; we still lead in sci­ence and tech­nol­ogy but oth­ers are not that far be­hind us any­more. We stud­ied ways to main­tain our leader po­si­tion in the world and made 10 rec­om­men­da­tions last year,” Chu said of CRU’s work. The re­port, Ten Break­through Ac­tions Vi­tal to Our Na­tion’s Pros­per­ity and Se­cu­rity, was pub­lished last year.

Chu is a mem­ber on the Com­mit­tee on Glob­al­iza­tion of Sci­ence and Tech­nol­ogy: Op­por­tu­ni­ties and Chal­lenges for the Depart­ment of De­fense (GSTOC). With GSTOC, the fo­cus is on how to meet the chal­lenges to US de­fense brought by mod­ern tech­nol­ogy.

Chu has been an ad­viser and re­viewer to many na­tional re­search in­sti­tu­tions such as Bell Lab­o­ra­to­ries, Los Alamos Sci­en­tific Lab­o­ra­tory, and the Mar­shall Space Flight Cen­ter at var­i­ous stage of his ca­reer.

“I just came back from Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia at San Diego. I was at Brookhaven Na­tional Lab­o­ra­tory two months ago to give them some guid­ance,” said Chu.

As a sci­en­tist, Chu is very proud of his achieve­ment as the pres­i­dent of Hong Kong Univer­sity of Sci­ence and Tech­nol­ogy (HKUST) from 2001 to 2009.

The first chief ex­ec­u­tive of Hong Kong Tung Chee-hwa, who be­lieved that sci­ence and tech­nol­ogy should be the en­gine to fuel Hong Kong’s fu­ture eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment, per­son­ally ex­tended the in­vi­ta­tion to Chu to lead the newly es­tab­lished univer­sity.

“I even­tu­ally de­cided to take the of­fer be­cause HKUST was young with­out bag­gage, the govern­ment and so­ci­ety were very sup­port­ive of it. Also, Hong Kong pro­vides a good plat­form to con­nect main­land and Tai­wan for re­search co­op­er­a­tion be­tween the three re­gions and bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of each other,” Chu ex­plained.

More im­por­tantly, Chu wanted to build HKUST into a leading re­search univer­sity that would have an im­pact on not only Hong Kong, but also main­land and Asia.

To achieve that, Chu talked to many aca­demic lead­ers world­wide and en­gaged more than 10 No­bel Prize win­ners as ad­vis­ers, brain­storm­ing for ideas to ad­vance the school’s re­search abil­ity.

One of the ma­jor projects Chu ac­com­plished while at HKUST was to es­tab­lish the HKUST Jockey Club In­sti­tute of Ad­vanced Study (IAS). As its found­ing di­rec­tor, Chu raised HK$2 bil­lion to set it up. The in­sti­tute seeks to be a plat­form for in­ter­ac­tion among the world’s fore­most sci­en­tists and schol­ars as well as the de­vel­op­ment of both fun­da­men­tal and ap­plied re­search rel­e­vant to the re­gion’s so­cio-eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment.

Chu left HKUST in 2009 but the strate­gic plan he de­vel­oped continues.

“Be­fore I left, I also raised enough funds for four po­si­tions of in­sti­tute-level pro­fes­sor, and I am very happy to learn that so far they have hired Christo­pher Pis­sarides, a 2010 No­bel Prize win­ner in eco­nom­ics as well as Ching Tang, the in­ven­tor of or­ganic LED and a Wolf Prize win­ner to fill two of the po­si­tions,” he said.

Chu first de­cided to work as the pres­i­dent of HKUST for three years to lay the foun­da­tion for its de­vel­op­ment, but he served for eight years.

“Hong Kong people are very flex­i­ble do­ing busi­ness and they tai­lored the term to meet my need,” Chu said. While act­ing as its pres­i­dent, Chu kept his di­rec­tor po­si­tion and lab at TSCUH. He re­turned to Hous­ton once a month to mon­i­tor re­search progress.

Chu’s work at HKUST was rec­og­nized and he was voted best univer­sity pres­i­dent for over­all per­for­mance in 2002-2004 and 2006-2009, and sec­ond best in 2005. His ef­fort paid off and the univer­sity rose to the top quickly. In 2013-14, the QS World Univer­sity Rank­ings placed HKUST 34th in the world. It has been ranked Asia’s No 1 by the in­de­pen­dent re­gional QS Asian Univer­sity Rank­ings three years in a row since 2011, al­though it dropped to the fifth in 2014.

“I’m very happy that now Hong Kong has a distinc­tion be­tween ed­u­ca­tion uni­ver­si­ties and re­search uni­ver­si­ties,” said Chu.

MAY ZHOU / CHINA DAILY

Dr Paul Chin-wu Chu talks about his sci­en­tific ca­reer in his of­fice at the Texas Cen­ter for Su­per­con­duc­tiv­ity at the Univer­sity of Hous­ton.

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