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A Bell Labs Reunion at the DOE

When William Brinkman retired in 2001 as head of research for Bell Labs after 35 years with the company and joined the Princeton University physics department, he thought that would be his last job. Then Energy Secretary Steven Chu, who once worked indirectly for Brinkman at the fabled lab, contacted him last month and the 70-year-old physicist decided to make one more career move. "I believe that, with the current people in this Administration, there is a real chance of change happening," says Brinkman, who otherwise declined to comment pending his confirmation.

On Friday, President Barack Obama tapped Brinkman to be head of the Department of Energy's Office of Science, which manages DOE's $4.8-billion-a-year basic science portfolio, including its network of national laboratories.

If confirmed, Brinkman would report to Steven Koonin, who could be confirmed as early as this week as undersecretary of science. Colleagues say that Brinkman is an inspired choice. "He brings an unusual combination of extraordinary scientific insight and tremendous administrative skills," says physicist David Bishop, who was hired by Brinkman in 1978 right out of graduate school and is now the chief operating officer for LGS Innovations, a surviving piece of Bell Labs that carries out government work. Bishop credits Brinkman for maintaining "an inspired rear-guard holding action … that kept the organization alive and focused" after the breakup of Bell Labs’ parent company and amid the changing world of telecommunications.

Princeton University physicist Philip Anderson remembers that he and other Bell Labs scientists were so impressed with Brinkman's intellectual potential that they held open a position for him while he did a 1-year postdoc at Oxford University. In the 1970s, Brinkman worked on superfluid helium with Anderson and Douglas Osheroff, both Nobelists but for different discoveries, before deciding to go into management. "I remember him saying that he didn't think he'd ever be a great theorist but that he could be a great manager," Anderson recalls. "I said that was nonsense. But I also told him I thought he'd make a great manager."

Brinkman was director of Bell Labs' physical research laboratory when Chu joined one of its departments in 1978. In the 1980s, Brinkman did a 3-year stint managing research at DOE's Sandia National Laboratories, then operated by AT&T. Anderson says he expects Brinkman to proceed carefully with any changes at the Office of Science "because he knows how difficult it is to move and change DOE." But Anderson predicts that any moves made by Brinkman will target real problems. "He has definite ideas about what's good and not good [about DOE], and he knows where the bodies are buried."