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The First Lady of Physics, Chien-Shiung Wu

Kara M. Zone

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Chien-Shiung Wu was a Chinese-American nuclear physicist born in 1912. She had many nicknames including "the First Lady of Physics" and "Queen of Nuclear Research." Her research contributions include work on the Manhattan Project and the Wu experiment, "which contradicted the hypothetical law of conservation of parity," and she won a Nobel Peace Prize, although the prize was not awarded to women at that time.

During her career, she earned many accolades including the Comstock Prize in Physics (1964), the Bonner Prize (1975), the National Medal of Science (1975), and the Wolf Prize in Physics (inaugural award, 1978). Her book Beta Decay (1965) is still a standard reference for nuclear physicists.

Born in the small town of Liu He (Ho) located near Shanghai, China, Chien-Shiung Wu was the only daughter of three children. Education was important to the Wu family. She attended one of the first elementary schools that admitted girls, which was founded by her father, and left to attend boarding school shortly after.

In 1930, Wu enrolled in one of the oldest and most prestigious institutions of higher learning in China, Nanjing (or Nanking) University. At the university, she first pursued mathematics but as she was inspired by Marie Curie she switched her major to physics.

She graduated with top honors at the head of her class with a BS in 1934.

After graduation, she taught and worked in a physics laboratory at the Academia Sinica where she conducted experimental research in X-ray crystallography (1935–1936) under the mentorship of Jing-Wei Gu, a female professor. Dr. Gu encouraged her to pursue graduate studies in the United States and in 1936, she visited the University of California at Berkeley. It was there she met Professor Ernest Lawrence, who was responsible for the first cyclotron and who later won a Nobel Prize, and another Chinese physics student, Luke Chia-Liu Yuan, who influenced her both to remain at Berkeley and obtain her PhD. Wu's graduate work focused on a desirable topic of that era: uranium fission products.

After completing her PhD in 1940, Wu married Yuan in 1942, and the two moved to the East coast where Yuan worked at Princeton University and Wu worked at Smith College.

After a few years she accepted an offer from Princeton University as the first female instructor ever hired.

In 1944, she joined the Manhattan Project at Columbia University where she helped Enrico Fermi solve the artificial radioactivity produced by neutrons and nuclear reactions from slow neutrons. She also discovered a way "to enrich uranium ore that produced large quantities of uranium as fuel."

In 1947, Yuan and Wu welcomed a son, Vincent Wei-Cheng Yuan, to their family. Vincent would go on to follow in Wu's footsteps and also became a nuclear scientist.

After leaving the Manhattan Project in 1945, Wu spent the rest of her career in the Department of Physics at Columbia as the undisputed leading experimentalist in beta decay and weak interaction physics. According to biography.com:


Wu's experiments using cobalt-60, a radioactive form of the cobalt metal that disproved the law of parity (the quantum mechanics law that held that two physical systems, such as atoms, are mirror images that behave in identical ways). Unfortunately, although this led to a Nobel Prize for Yang and Lee in 1957, Wu was excluded, as were many other female scientists during this time. Wu was aware of gender-based injustice and at an MIT symposium in October of 1964, she stated '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.'



Physicist Dr. Chien-Shiung Wu standing amidst tubes of a particle accelerator at
Columbia University. (Photo by Robert W. Kelley/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)


In 1974, she was named Scientist of the Year by Industrial Research Magazine, and in 1976, she was the first woman to serve as president of the American Physical Society.

In 1975, she became the first female president of the American Physical Society, the first non-white-male to serve in that position. She received the inaugural Wolf Prize in physics in 1978 for her explorations of the weak interaction.

In 1990, the Chinese Academy of Sciences named Asteroid 2752 after her (she was the first living scientist to receive this honor), and five years later, Tsung-Dao Lee, Chen Ning Yang, Samuel C. C. Ting, and Yuan T. Lee founded the Wu Chien-Shiung Education Foundation in Taiwan for the purposes of providing scholarships to young aspiring scientists. Wu passed in 1997, she was inducted into the American National Women's Hall of Fame in 1998.

Her later research focused on sickle-cell anemia. Wu retired from Columbia in 1981 and devoted her time to educational programs in the People's Republic of China, Taiwan, and the United States.

Devoted to science, Wu encouraged and mentored dozens of graduate students throughout her career. She is remembered as a trailblazer in the scientific community and an inspirational role model. Her granddaughter, Jada Wu Hanjie, remarked, "I was young when I saw my grandmother, but her modesty, rigorousness, and beauty were rooted in my mind. My grandmother had emphasized much enthusiasm for national scientific development and education, which I really admire." She was a huge advocate for promoting girls in STEM and lectured widely to support this cause becoming a role model for young women scientists everywhere.

Resources:

Biography.com
Diversity.lbl.gov

Kara Zone is a professional writer, editor, and graphic designer. She is the managing editor of WITI.com and enjoys working remotely. She is a critical thinker and builds departmental systems for companies to use when structuring organizational systems.

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