Badass Women in History: Chien-Shiung Wu

Hi all! Today’s installment of Badass Women in History features Chien-Shiung Wu, an experimental physicist in the 1940s and 1950s whose contributions were recognized by the scientific community, but not to the level she deserved.

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a photo of Wu from around the time of the Manhattan Project (image from http://www.info.umkc.edu)

Chien-Shiung Wu was born in 1912 in China.  She was very close to her father, who encouraged her to pursue her interests by surrounding her with all sorts of reading materials.  She went to boarding school and trained to be a teacher.  She taught for a while before attending college, where she majored in mathematics before changing majors to physics. She did her some of her graduate work in China, but her supervisor encouraged her to try to study abroad at the University of Michigan.

 

Wu arrived in California, and visited the University of California at Berkley, and was shown the radiation lab by physicist Luke Chia-Liu Yuan (a grandson of the President of the Republic of China).  While there, she heard that women at the University of Michigan weren’t even allowed to use the front door. This prompted her to change her plan and do her doctorate work at Berkley, where she was able to study under J. Robert Oppenheimer. At the end of her first year, she applied for a scholarship to continue her education. Due to prejudice against Asians at the time, she was denied. She applied for a scholarship at Caltech, and was accepted.

 

While doing research at Caltech, Wu gained a reputation for being a meticulous experimental physicist, and was called upon to assist future Nobel Prize winners in their experiments.  In 1944, she was contacted by her former professor, J. Robert Oppenheimer to assist in the Manhattan Project at Columbia University. She felt regret when the bombs were dropped at Nagasaki and Hiroshima, but her work helped end the war sooner.  During the war, she married Luke Chia-Liu Yuan, the physicist who showed her around Berkley upon her arrival.

 

After the war, Wu stayed on at Columbia to teach and continue research into beta decay, which is a radioactive process by which one element can change into another.  Her work caught the attention of Chen-Ning Yang and Tsung-Dao Lee, two Chinese-American physicists.  They were investigating a scientific principle that states that everything in nature was governed by fundamental symmetry.  Their theory was that beta decay would cause atoms to break up in an asymmetrical pattern. Wu created an experiment that proved their theory to be true.  The news that they disproved a fundamental law of science landed her on the cover of the New York Times.  Her work, however, went unrecognized as the two MALE physicists went on to win a Nobel Prize for their discovery. Are you fuming yet? Wu even admitted that she was hurt that her work went unnoticed.  She received pretty much every other honor in her field, including the National Medal of Science and the Wolf Prize (which is the second most prestigious prize in science after the Nobel).  She retired from Columbia in 1981, and passed away of a stroke in 1997 at the age of 84.

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A photo of Wu from later in life during her retirement. Photo by Joe Pineiro.

This woman had to bust through every barrier imaginable to achieve her dreams.  First she traveled across the world for her education. When she got to America she had to deal with racism and gender discrimination. She did all the dirty work so the men could take all the credit. While my little corner of the internet might not be big, I wanted to do my part to make sure her contributions didn’t continue to go unnoticed by the masses. We’ve all learned about Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project, but had you heard of Chien-Shiung Wu until I just told you? Probably not.

 

 

As always, thanks for reading. Until next time!

 

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