Did You Ever Wonder: Steven Louie

A nanometer is a billionth of a meter, the size of a typical molecule -- a hundred-thousandth the width of a human hair. Researchers are building incredibly small, nanoscale devices with vast potential: imagine transistors a thousandth their present size, or nanoprobes inside living cells traveling on truly fantastic voyages.

Steven Louie of Berkeley Lab's Materials Sciences Division studies possible nanostructures with supercomputers; he and his colleagues then try to find or make the most interesting kinds. They've invented remarkable nanodevices, and they even have a scheme to make invisibly tiny supercomputers someday.


An electronic device known as a diode can be formed by joining two nanoscale carbon tubes with different electronic properties.


Louie was a scientific early starter: as a child he helped a neighbor in Hong Kong tear apart a vacuum-tube radio and put it back together. "I didn't know what physics was," he says, "but I knew I was fascinated by the way things work."

When he was 11 he came to San Francisco with his mother and siblings; his father had worked years to save enough money to bring them. "In those days there were no bilingual programs. Living in Chinatown eased the transition to English, but it took me two years to catch up."

Science and math were no problem, however. Louie attended Lowell High School; summers, he rode the bus to attend math programs at UC Berkeley, where he subsequently earned a B.A.

"The standard advice is to do your graduate work somewhere else," he says, "but my father's illness kept me at Berkeley, and that determined my career." Marvin Cohen, a world authority in condensed matter physics, became his advisor; years later Cohen and Louie became partners in investigating the theory of materials.

Another advantage was a computer at nearby Berkeley Lab. "Because high energy physicists needed to analyze particle collisions, the Lab had a supercomputer, a state-of-the-art Control Data 7600." Louie was there at the dawning of the age of computational physics.

After earning his Ph.D. in 1976, he worked at IBM, Bell Labs, and the University of Pennsylvania, returning to Berkeley in 1980. A physics professor whose honors and awards are among the highest in the field, he still uses cutting-edge computers -- the supercomputers at the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center (NERSC).

Louie's research involves far more than nanodevices. He studies many complex materials and phenomena, common and strange, and he's even used a supercomputer to "visit" the center of the Earth. He collaborates closely with experimentalists, and many of his ideas come from discussions with colleagues.

"That's what makes Berkeley special: so many people doing different things," Louie says. "What's important is always the people first."

Did You Ever Wonder Web Site
Ernest Orlando Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory