She Took a Nucleus of Encouragement and Made Physics History

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Most great thinkers, artists, and leaders had someone who encouraged them or challenged them as children. Although education for Chinese girls was rare when Chien-Shiung Wu was born on May 31, 1912, her father encouraged her. She went on to help the United States during a pivotal moment in history and became “The First Lady of Physics.” 

Wu’s birth family was fairly well off; her father founded a school for girls, which she attended. Yet at the age of 11, she went to a competitive boarding school, eschewing financial support in deference to her own skills and work ethic. She graduated at the top of her class in 1929 and went to the National Central University in Nanjing from 1930-1934. She graduated with a bachelor’s in physics while being elected a leader of student protesters who wanted China to take a harder position toward Japan.

After earning her bachelor’s, Wu did graduate level study and worked as an assistant at the Zhejiang University. Next she went to the Institute of Physics of the Academia Sinica, where her supervisor was another female physicist, Jing-Wei Gu. Following her supervisor’s advice, Wu applied to the doctoral program at the University of Michigan and was accepted. This time Wu accepted family help from an uncle, who went with her parents to see her boat depart for America in August 1936. It would be the last time she saw her parents.

Women were not as free to study at Michigan as Wu had expected; they were restricted from some fields and laboratories. However, she discovered that several prominent Chinese physicists were working at the University of California, Berkeley, so she applied there and was accepted. But, while women were not as restricted at Berkeley, there were still biases against Asians. With two prejudices working against her, Wu was offered only a readership. Nevertheless, by 1940 she had earned her Ph.D. by studying beta decay and nuclear fission at the university’s Radiation Laboratory. Once more, biases against women and Asians stood in her way, and she found it difficult to find a position, so she stayed on at the same institution to do post-doc work.

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On May 30, 1942, Wu married fellow physicist Luke Chia-Liu Yuan, and they moved to the East Coast to get as far from the Pacific theater of WWII as they could. Her first job at Smith College was unfulfilling because it was focused solely on teaching, but her Berkeley supervisor helped her secure a position as instructor for naval officers at Princeton University. This official post made her the first woman instructor in the Princeton University Physics Department. By 1944 she joined the Manhattan Project, where her dissertation research was brought to the attention of those in charge. Her expertise helped her solve problems with the Project’s B Reactor, which produced plutonium for the atomic bomb. 

In August 1945, Wu accepted a professorship at Columbia University, where she taught and researched for the rest of her academic life. Wu was an experimental physicist who rigorously tested the theories as well as the methods of her experiments. During her lifetime she conducted several important experiments, but her most famous is the Wu Experiment, which confirmed Enrico Fermi’s theory of beta decay and proved that the process of beta decay violated parity conservation. 

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However, as important as her work was, she was often overlooked for major awards. For example, she ran the Wu Experiment while working with Lee and Yang, and the two men won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1957, but her own work on parity violation was not recognized until 1978, when she earned the first Wolf Prize in Physics, an Israeli-hosted award.

While she and Yuan had a good private life, including one son, Vincent Yuan, the political situation in China had turned an American ally into an enemy. Unable to travel freely with her pre-Maoist passport, Wu became an American citizen in 1954. She could not travel back to China, even for her parents’ funerals. Wu began to speak out about Chinese actions against scientists and the press and continued to do so for the rest of her life. By the time Wu could visit China again in 1973, the rest of her surviving family had fallen victim to the new regime. Wu later visited China but never let up on her critiques. After her death on February 16, 1997, her ashes were spread at the school her father had founded.

Wu’s activism was not limited to commentary on China. Back in the academic world she was correcting attempts to call her by her husband’s surname, which she never took, and speaking up for gender equity in the field of physics. It wasn’t until 1975, when a new chair of the physics department at Columbia took office, that she was paid equally to her male colleagues with the same credentials and years of service.

Wu’s work spoke for itself, earning her several awards, including a handful of “firsts” beyond the Wolf Prize. In 1958 she became the first woman to earn an honorary doctorate from Princeton, and in 1975 she became the first female president of the American Physical Society. She was the first living scientist to have an asteroid named after her, in 1990, as well as one of the first foreign academicians elected to the Chinese Academy of Sciences, in 1994. The year after her death, she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.