Chien Shiung-Wu — Experimental Physicist
One of the foremost physicists of the twentieth century, this Chinese-born American researcher was often called the “First Lady of Physics” for her pioneering work, which included radically changing scientific views on the behavior of nuclear particles
Chien Shiung-Wu once said: “I sincerely doubt that any open-minded person really believes in the faulty notion that women have no intellectual capacity for science and technology. Nor do I believe that social and economic factors are the actual obstacles that prevent women’s participation in the scientific and technical field. The main stumbling blocking the way of any progress is and always has been unimpeachable tradition.”
Dr. Wu’s life and career was devoted to breaking down the barriers of “unimpeachable tradition” whenever and wherever she could on her road to scientific achievement.
She was born in 1912 in Liu He, a small town near Shanghai, China. Her father, an engineer, was the headmaster of the School for Girls, one of the first schools to admit girls in China. Wu graduated from this school in 1922 and continued her studies at the Soochow School for Girls in Nanjing. As was generally expected for women at the time, she enrolled in the Normal School program, which led to a teaching career.
Pursuing her interest in physics and mathematics, she enrolled in 1930 at the National Central University in Nanjing, from which she graduated in 1934 at the head of her class. She taught for a year at the National Chekiang University and started research in X-ray crystallography at the National Academy of Sciences (Academia Sinica) in Shanghai in 1935 and 1936. Wu immigrated to the United States in 1936 to pursue graduate studies at the University of Michigan. However, she first visited the University of California at Berkeley where she met another Chinese physics student, Luke Chia Yuan, who introduced her to Professor Ernest Lawrence, of one of the world’s leading physicists who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1939 for his invention of the cyclotron particle accelerator and the development of its applications in physics. Lawrence immediately recognized Wu’s intelligence and potential and convinced her to enroll in graduate school at UC Berkeley, which she did.
Under Lawrence, Wu made rapid progress in her education and her research, and she completed her Ph.D. degree in 1940.
Why She’s Important: One of the foremost physicists of the 20th century, Wu quickly gained a reputation as a meticulously accurate and innovative experimental physicist and was soon in demand to put new theories to the test. She was in her early 30s when her work in nuclear fission attracted the attention of the United States government during World War II. She was recruited to work on the Manhattan Project ( the Army’s secret project to develop the atomic bomb) at Columbia University in New York City. She helped develop a process to enrich uranium ore that produced large quantities of uranium as fuel for the bomb. At the end of the war, she remained at Columbia as a research scientist.
After the war, she stayed at Columbia as a research assistant. In her most famous experiment, announced in 1957, she and her colleagues (Drs. Tsung-Dao Lee and Dr. Chen Ning Yang) overthrew a law of symmetry in physics called the principle of conservation of parity that had been considered incontrovertible for 30 years. Wu observed that there is a preferred direction of emission, which disproved what was then a widely accepted “law” of nature. Her discovery about the law of parity was not recorded, and both Lee and Yang won the 1957 Nobel Prize in Physics, but Dr. Wu was not included in the award (many observers say because of gender bias).
Other Achievements: Even though she did not receive the Nobel Prize, Wu received many other honors and awards. She was named full professor at Columbia in 1958 and authored the book Beta Decay in 1965. She was appointed as the first Pupin Professor of Physics in 1973. Wu was the first woman elected to the American Physical Society as well as the first woman to receive the Cyrus B. Comstock Award of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. She was also a recipient of the Medal of Science, the nation’s highest scientific award, and became the first woman ever to be awarded an honorary doctorate from Princeton University.
Wu continued to teach at Columbia University and conduct nuclear research until her retirement in 1981. After her retirement, she lectured widely and encouraged the participation of young women in scientific careers and became known as the “First Lady of Physics” (and earlier as “Madame Curie of China”). She died in 1997 in New York City of a stroke.
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