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COLUMN ONE : Trapped in His Own Shadow : Paul Chu rocketed to fame in 1987 with his new superconductor. But success has its price. Now the Houston professor gives speeches, squires donors and worries about meeting the pressure to produce.

TIMES SCIENCE WRITER

Not so long ago, Paul C.W. Chu was just another physics professor at the University of Houston, doing the things he loved. He taught for a living and gardened for fun. When he could, he would slip on a comfortable old lab coat and indulge in a little basic research.

Chu still wears his lab coat most days. But almost everything else about his life has changed.

Building on breakthrough research at IBM, Chu dazzled the science world in 1987 by concocting a material that conducts electricity with no resistance at temperatures far higher than once thought possible.

The discovery made him as hot a commodity as his new superconductor. After decades of solid but unspectacular work, Chu rocketed into the scientific stratosphere. Colleagues showered him with honors, professional groups pleaded to hear him speak--and, most significantly, prestigious universities wooed him.

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UC Berkeley was the most aggressive, offering a full professorship in its legendary physics department and all the talented graduate students, lab facilities and federal grants that come with it.

The University of Houston and its benefactors, eager to ride Chu’s coattails, countered with an enticing package. They would build him a laboratory, let him equip it to his taste and hire anyone he wanted. His pay, more than six figures a year, would be among the highest in academia. All he had to do was stay and make Houston a scientific powerhouse.

Chu stayed.

But his role as superstar-in-residence has taken a toll on the unassuming teacher. Once free to pursue experiments in his familiar Science and Research Building lab, Chu finds himself consumed by the bureaucratic tedium of running his $22.3-million research complex--the Texas Center for Superconductivity.

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Now, he says rather wistfully, he has little time for the kind of pioneering basic research that earned him international attention. Instead, there are speeches to give, planes to catch and relations to maintain with the corporate sponsors who each pony up $25,000 a year to join the lab’s research consortium.

Recently, for example, Chu flew in from a meeting in Stockholm on a Saturday, slipped away from home for a few hours of lab work Sunday, attended to administrative duties Monday morning, co-hosted a university reception that afternoon and flew to Washington that night so he could advise NASA on the space station project Tuesday morning.

On his calendar were a lecture in Brazil, three trips to Taiwan in as many weeks and a meeting in Seattle.

Despite such distractions, the 52-year-old Chu struggles to stay focused on the research because, he explained, he knows that whatever his lab discovers--in terms of products, not science--can be financially helpful to the university.

Chu’s lab has yet to hit the patent jackpot, but science has proven profitable elsewhere. Stanford University’s Office of Technology Licensing brought in $18 million last year--including $5 million from a half-share in a single technology, recombinant DNA.

If it is to be known for more than basketball and football, Houston must find a ripe source of research revenue. Chu realizes that superconductivity is the most obvious option.

“The pressure is tremendous,” Chu said, resting a moment in his glass-walled office on the second floor of the Texas Center. “It’s quite scary, I have to tell you.”

Sometimes, he said, he reflects on a tale he heard at an event marking the 50th anniversary of the invention of nylon. Wallace Carothers had left a promising academic career to perform applied research at Du Pont Corp. and was by most measures quite successful, developing nylon and the first synthetic rubber. But the chronically depressed chemist took his life with cyanide.

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“Du Pont did not expect another (nylon), but the pressure was so great,” Chu said, his voice trailing off as he glanced out the window toward the university basketball arena. “I heard that story and it scared me. I remember I came back and told my wife, ‘I am not going to let all this get to me.’ ”

*

Superconductivity--the ability of some metals and alloys to conduct electricity without resistance, the property that opposes the flow of current--was discovered in 1911.

Its promise was great. Ordinary transmission lines lose 10% to 25% of the power they carry when resistance transforms electrical energy into heat. Superconducting wires could eliminate this waste, saving millions of dollars each year.

For decades, the only known superconductors had a crucial shortcoming that limited their practical use: They worked only when chilled to 420 degrees below zero. This required an expensive and difficult-to-handle refrigerant, such as liquid helium. Thus, many scientists assumed superconductivity would be useful in only specialized applications, such as magnetic-resonance image (MRI) machines in hospitals.

IBM scientists K. Alex Mueller and J. Georg Bednorz shattered those assumptions in 1986 when they found a copper oxide material with a “critical temperature"--when it became superconductive--of 406 degrees below zero. Although such temperatures required extreme refrigeration, they were high enough to spur more research.

Mueller and Bednorz would share the Nobel Prize for finding that “high-temperature” superconductors were possible, but it was Chu who demonstrated that they could be practical. His material--based on an alloy of yttrium, barium and copper oxide--works at 290 degrees below zero, within reach of cheap industrial refrigerants.

The discovery touched off a frenzy. Entrepreneurs were mobilized, investors recruited and companies founded in anticipation of commercially viable superconductors that, many supposed, could revolutionize the world.

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Chu said he stayed in Houston in part to repay those who had supported him when superconductivity was just a scientific sideshow.

“I don’t know if the decision to stay was correct or not correct,” said Chu, leaning his tall, slim frame deeper into one of the beige chairs scattered around his administrative office. “Back then, I thought that if I don’t go to Berkeley, it will still be Berkeley--a great school. But at the time, a lot of promises were made to the University of Houston based solely on one thing--that Paul Chu stays.”

Chu recalled one day when local philanthropists pledged $8 million to the university--provided he remained on the faculty. Administrators said Chu drew more than $20 million in private funds to the school. Also, they said, his name helped colleagues win grants from the National Science Foundation and other agencies.

“I had to stay,” said Chu, who was born in China and received his undergraduate degree in Taiwan. “That is the Oriental thinking: If you are good to me, I can’t walk away from you.”

“He felt responsible for his people there--the people he worked with were the people he’d asked to join him and the graduate students who went to Houston to be with him,” said professor Marvin Cohen of UC Berkeley, the leader of the effort to coax Chu to California.

Scientists and administrators agree that Chu has raised Houston’s academic standing, has attracted top researchers and has brought in more corporate support. In the lab, results have been solid but not flashy. Progress is incremental.

Chu’s lab increased the current-carrying capacity of new superconductors and nudged upward the temperature at which they operate. On the commercial side, the lab is working with manufacturers to develop superconducting magnetic clamps, rivet guns and tools that firmly but gently fix aircraft dents.

The Pentagon has asked about the practicality of electromagnetic cannons that would propel explosive shells without telltale booms or muzzle flashes.

Such gadgets are far more modest than some of the applications forecast for the new superconductors. And even these devices will not be available for several years.

But if anyone in Houston is unhappy with the community’s investment in either superconductivity or Chu, they are keeping a low profile.

“It’s not a technology that one can expect to come to fruition tomorrow, but it is one that may make a big difference in a decade or two,” said Peter McIntyre, a professor at Texas A&M; University and a scientist at the Houston Advanced Research Center. “Paul has always been careful to say that, and I think people understand it.”

Indeed, Chu has come as close to local celebrity status as scientists can get.

“Personalities are important in Texas, perhaps more so here than anywhere,” McIntyre said. “When someone makes a breakthrough in a certain field, they become the symbol of that field. With heart surgery, it’s Mike DeBakey. With NASA, it’s Sally Ride. With superconductivity, it’s Paul Chu.”

Chu seems amused and slightly embarrassed by that celebrity. When the idea is broached, he shrugs it off and steers the conversation back to his work and the contributions of others.

When a visitor to his cluttered lab notices a videotape titled, “Masters of Science"--a high school teaching aid that includes a segment on Chu--he smiles bashfully and shrugs. “They sent it to me after they made it,” he said. “I haven’t had time to look at it.”

*

Despite Chu’s fears about being under pressure to produce, only six years have passed since his experimental breakthrough--a blink of the eye in the research game.

Indeed, theorists are not even close to agreeing on the process by which a high-temperature superconductor works--a critical step needed to develop practical applications.

Theorists know that the new superconductors consist of layers of copper oxide suspended in a Tinkertoy-like lattice of other atoms. Pairs of electrons--each spinning in the opposite direction of its partner--skate on the layers. Still hotly debated are why these electrons move so easily and why they pair up when electrons normally tend to repel one another.

Lacking a theory to guide them, researchers have relied on trial-and-error and even hunches. No one is close to another major advance, but Chu feels a nagging pressure to deliver--a laboratory breakthrough, a solid theory, a lucrative product, something.

“When the building is built,” he said, pointing to the 120,000-square-foot Texas Center in which he has two large offices, “people inevitably say, ‘What have you done with that building?’ ”

The fact is, Chu does have something to show. The center has secured a dozen patents--for things as diverse as superconducting magnetic bearings and a “sputtering” process to coat objects with a thin metal film--and applied for two dozen more.

The Texas Center also is recognized as one of the six best superconductivity research labs in the world. Frank Fradin of the Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois credits Chu.

Chu said his reputation was forged in an extraordinary time. Back in the giddy 1980s, superconductor discoveries were reported so frequently that even usually wary Nobel laureates predicted breakthroughs “every month for a long time.” The media touted such potential applications as high-speed magnetic levitation trains and blazingly fast supercomputers.

Bednorz and Mueller were given the Nobel a little more than a year after publishing their research, an unusually swift reward. In the months after he announced his discovery, Chu received 10 honorary degrees and 18 awards, and he was elected to the prestigious National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Today, Chu worries that even solid scientific progress will not meet inflated expectations.

“Paul is a super-achiever and I don’t think that he will ever be satisfied,” said Fradin, who is a member of the Texas Center’s advisory board. On the other hand, he said, the expectations of university officials “are being met pretty well.”

“The University of Houston is not exactly among the top-ranked universities in the country, and this (research center) has raised its profile,” Fradin said. “It brought in some federal money and good professors--and, most importantly, it has attracted a lot of good students.”

Attracting bright students, he said, is how universities grow Nobel winners and how they seed surrounding communities with the educated, enthusiastic people who create new industries. Fradin was careful to say that no one expects “Superconductor City” to spring up in Houston the way Silicon Valley grew up around Stanford, although he acknowledged that “you would always like that in your back yard.”

That is the problem. Everyone talks about modest goals but thinks about winning the lottery. It is a dichotomy faced by many scientific stars, and it has compelled Chu to radically reorder his life.

There is no longer time for gardening, hardly any for his family. He works seven days a week just to keep his hand in real lab work. His 12-year-old son complains about how little he sees Chu; the boy said his sister, now 19 and a freshman at UC Berkeley, was lucky enough to grow up before their father became famous.

“It’s been exciting, but I cannot help but wonder how much I could do if I spent more time in the lab,” Chu said. “It’s the habit of an old bench jockey. I thought that this year would be an easy year, but it hasn’t been.”

There is no trace of anger or bitterness or even disappointment in his voice. He is in the big leagues now , and he knows that the rules have changed.

“I don’t like it,” he said, finally frowning with distaste. “But it’s a fact of life.”


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