STEM Women Hall of Fame: First Lady of Physics

Cristen Conger

Courtesy: Amazon

STEM Women Hall of Fame Facts: Chien-Shiung Wu

  • Born: May 31, 1912 in Liuhe, China.
  • Historical context: After Wu earned her physics PhD in 1940, a combination of sexism and World War II-fueled racism initially hampered her early efforts to find employment. Frustrated, Wu reached out to her former Berkeley adviser who helped her land a job at Princeton. She was the Ivy League giant's first female physics instructor.
  • PhD thesis topic: Nuclear fission.
  • STEM legacy: Although Wu's work didn't earn a Nobel Prize, she did garner a number of rad scientific nicknames: First Lady of Physics, Chinese Madam Curie and Queen of Nuclear Research. Fittingly, her name also translates to Courageous Hero.

In 1957, Drs. C.N. Yang and T.D. Lee became the first Chinese recipients of a Nobel Prize. Yang and Lee received the prestigious award in physics for their parity non-conservation theory, which had been verified painstakingly by a Chinese-American nuclear physicist, Dr. Chien-Shiung Wu. However, the Nobel committee failed to recognize Wu's crucial contributions to the groundbreaking theory; women getting snubbed has been a recurrent theme of past Nobel Prizes, after all.

The First Lady of Physics wasn't at a loss for accolades though. She accumulated a slew of honorary degrees from Smith, Yale, Harvard and Princeton -- the first woman ever to receive such a Princeton prize -- in addition to winning the National Medal of Science, the Wolf Prize in Physics and a trophy case-worth of other commendations.

But long before Wu even arrived in the United States in 1936, she had already achieved a 'first' more impressive than an honorary Princeton degree. As a child, she became one of the first girls in China to receive a formal elementary education thanks to her enterprising feminist parents. Believing in equal rights for women, they started the first school for girls in their region, which Wu attended through the fourth grade.

Courtesy: The Invisible Agent

After studying physics and graduating at the top of her class from China's National Central University of Nanking, Wu moved to the United States where she earned her PhD in physics from the University of California, Berkeley in 1940. Nuclear fission was Wu's specialty. As a result of her renown expertise and her work at Berkeley under Robert Oppenheimer, she was later recruited to join the Manhattan Project at Columbia University during World War II. Though many women contributed to the Manhattan Project in technical roles, Wu was a rare lead female scientist ("rare lead female" -- what a depressing adjective combination!). Working on the top-secret atomic bomb, she figured out how to enrich uranium to produce massive amounts of fuel.

After the war, Wu remained at Columbia University, teaching, researching and mentoring other aspiring women scientists tirelessly until she retired in 1983.

But back to that 1957 Nobel Prize. By then, Wu was recognized at one of the best experimental physicists in the field. She was so good, in fact, she elegantly designed an experiment that disproved a fundamental law of physics known as Parity Law. In a nutshell -- partly because I can't wrap my liberal artsy brain around more than a physics nutshell -- Parity Law assumed the mirror image of a particle and its behavior is identical to the original under all conditions and particle interactions. Drs. C.N. Yang and T.D. Lee, the eventual Nobel winners, first published a paper proposing possible exceptions to Parity Law in certain subatomic particles. Six months later, the landmark "Wu Experiment" confirmed Yang and Lee's hunch. Scientific history had been made, paving the way for future breakthroughs including the Fermi theory of beta decay.

Not taking home a Nobel many in the scientific community believed she deserved stung for Wu, but it certainly didn't derail the Queen of Nuclear Research. Having developed a reputation for excellence and long hours, the work itself seemed to yield the greatest satisfaction for her. "A glimpse of this wonder can be the reward of a lifetime," Wu later told author Sharon McGrayne.

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