Who To Expect When Expecting Dr. Chien-Shiung Wu

Dr. Chien-Shiung Wu was a Chinese-American physicist who accomplished many amazing feats in her life to the point where she is commonly referred to as the “First Lady of Physics” and sometimes as the “Chinese Marie Curie” [1]. For instance, some of her work includes breaking a law of physics and working on the manhattan project [2].

Wu was born on May 31st, 1912 in Liuho, China. She was enrolled in Mingde Women’s Vocational Continuing School, which was started by her mother and father, who were both advocates of gender equality. This was one of the few elementary schools that would admit girls [3]. Further educational opportunities took her to many prestigious universities. In 1936, she graduated from the National Central University of Nanking and moved to California to attend the University of California-Berkeley, where she graduated with a PhD in Physics in 1940 [2]. After getting married she moved to the east coast, where she became the first female faculty member at Princeton University [3].

After Princeton University and the onset of WWII, Wu was asked to join the Manhattan Project at Columbia University in 1944. However terrible the circumstance, Wu was able to showcase her brilliance as a physicist. Wu developed a process to increase the yield of uranium and found a means to improve the Geiger Counter so that it could detect radiation levels better [4]. After the war, Wu became one of the leading scientists at Columbia University. Among her many achievements during her time at Columbia University, she made the first confirmation of Enrico Fermi’s theory of beta decay, a form of radioactive decay of atoms that releases electrons [4]. As we will see later, her ability to understand the laws and theories of physics did not stop here.

In 1956, Wu was approached by Tsung-Dao Lee and Chen Ning Yang, both male theoretical physicists. They had conducted library research on the Law of Conservation of Parity, which stated that all objects and their mirror images behaved the same way, and hypothesised that it was incorrect as it would not apply to weak nuclear forces [5]. This law of symmetry was held true for over 30 years before Wu disproved it. It is important to note that something in science becomes a law after it has been proven to be undisputed in any way. To consider that it may be incorrect is one thing but to experimentally prove that it is incorrect is a massive achievement. Wu, an expert in beta decay, used radioactive cobalt 60 to show experimentally that the emissions from its beta decay were asymmetrical, which defied the Law of Conservation of Parity [5].

To bolster support for her results, scientists at Columbia University were able to reproduce the results that Wu got using various methods [5]. This made it very difficult for anyone to discount her results and achievements because reproducibility of an experiment is one of the main arms of science to ensure accurate results are presented. Despite her achievement in breaking a law of physics, Lee and Yang were honoured with a Nobel prize for their theoretical work on this matter in 1957 and Wu was left out. This was, unfortunately, not an unusual situation as many women of science were notably left out of achievements that they should have gotten. Understandably, many of these women did not do any of their work for awards. For us today, one of the important reasons of having women be recognised is to break down stereotypes that they are somehow inferior to men solely because of their gender. Being recognised for their work shows young girls that they can also embrace science as a field to pursue in their education and not something to be shunned because it is not “lady-like”.

In 1965, Wu said it best that “I wonder whether the tiny atoms and nuclei, or the mathematical symbols, or the DNA molecules have any preference for either masculine or feminine treatment” [3]. Throughout her career, Wu was honoured with many accolades for her work as a scientist. In fact, in 1975, she was awarded the first Wolf Prize in Physics for her experimental work on disproving the symmetry law [5]. During her time at Columbia University and especially after she retired from Columbia, Wu spent a lot of her time as an advocate for getting young girls interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) subjects [3]. After retiring in 1981 from Columbia University, she spent her time lecturing at various institutions on the cause of women in science.

Wu died in February 16th, 1997 from her second stroke, but her legacy lives on with her children, grandchildren, and everyone that she inspired. She entered a world that was biased against women. Knowing this, she persisted through it all and helped others persist through it as well.


Photo of Chien-Shiung Wu: Courtesy Smithsonian Institution via Wikimedia Commons

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