AMPLIFY: Chien-Shiung Wu
Happy January, HerStry readers! I apologize for the lack of Amplify in December. One of my low-key resolutions is to not miss a single month of Amplify in 2019. There are so many stories to tell and no one wants an unreliable columnist.
Our first Amplify feature of 2019 is Chien-Shiung Wu, a brilliant Chinese-American physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project. If you’re like me and aren’t up to speed on your nuclear weapon history, your first thought is “So uhh… wait what’s the Manhattan Project again? I feel like I should know this.” You’re right, we should know this. Thank goodness for Wikipedia (and it’s particularly in-depth article on the Manhattan Project). The Manhattan Project was a research and development project that created the first nuclear weapons. There is a tonof information on the internet about it, if you’d like to know even more. Back to our star of the month, though, Chien-Shiung Wu. Wu is notable for the work she did on the Manhattan Project, but she is seemingly most notable for the accolades she did not receive.
Wu was born in Liu He, a small town outside of Shanghai on May 31, 1912 (2). She was the only daughter to her parents, and she had two brothers. Her mother was a teacher and her father was an engineer, so education was very important to both of her parents, even during a time period where providing education for women was not a commonly-held belief. Her father valued education so deeply that he founded a school, Mingde Women's Vocational Continuing School, which was one of the first elementary schools in China to permit girls to attend (2).
I’d like to pause for a moment to recognize some of the awesome father figures we’ve come across while learning about Amplify features. Francis Harper’suncle supported her education fiercely, Dr. Susan La Flesche Picotte’sfather made sure she had a firm education so she could represent the people of her tribe, and Justine Wise Polier’sfather also made sure she was properly educated. This is a great example of ally-ship! Obviously, as young girls from earlier eras, they did not have the resources available to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” without the father figures in their lives giving them the resources needed. And if they had not gotten a proper education, they would not have been able to get into the boarding schools and colleges which they attened, etc. etc. I could go down a rabbit hole here but I won’t. Moral of the story: help marginalized people!
After Wu attended elementary school, she then went to two other schools - the Soochow (Suzhou) School for Girls boarding school and Shanghai Gong Xue public school (2). In 1929, Wu was admitted to National Central University (which was later called Nanjing University) and in 1930 she enrolled (2). By 1934, Wu graduated at the top of her class with a BS in Physics (3). One of Wu’s professors studied with Marie Curie (1), who was reportedly a source of inspiration for Wu (2). After her graduation, Wu worked as a research assistant until she was encouraged by her supervisor, Dr. Jing-Wei Gu, to continue her studies in America (2). By 1936, she moved to San Francisco to attend the PhD program at University of California, Berkeley. Her uncle helped provide some financial assistance for her move (another male ally, even if he didn’t know it) (1). At Berkeley, Wu studied under Ernest Lawrence, who won a Nobel Peace Prize in Physics in 1939 (2). It was also while at Berkeley that she met her future husband, fellow Chinese Physics student Luke Chia Yuan (1). Wu graduated with her PhD in 1940, but was unable to find work as a researcher so in 1942, Wu moved to the East Coast (3). By this time, Wu and Yuan were married and both worked and taught for Princeton University, becoming the first female instructor in the Physics department (3). During this time, Wu also taught at Smith College (superwoman!) (3).
In 1944, Wu joined Columbia University’s Substitute Alloy Materials (SAM) Lab and began her work on the Manhattan Project (3). On the Manhattan Project, she helped develop a process to produce bomb-grade Uranium (4). Wu found how to split Uranium into its radioactive isotope, Uranium-238, and improve Geiger counters (I also had to google that - it’s an instrument that measures radiation) (3). After the war, Wu stayed at Columbia as a full-time member of the faculty, researching beta decay (beta decay is a form of radioactive decay) (3). Because of Wu’s impressive resume, she was approached by two of her colleagues, physicists Tsung-Dao Lee and Chen-Ning Yang in 1956, for assistance with one of their projects. While celebrating its history, Columbia University created a succinct recap of Wu’s work for Lee and Yang:
In 1956 and early 1957, physicist C. S. Wu and her colleagues conducted an ingenious experiment showing that—at least in the case of radioactive decay—nature knows left from right. Wu’s work verified a hypothesis put forth in 1956 by her Columbia colleague Tsung-Dao Lee and Chen-Ning Yang that, unlike all other known physical forces, the "weak" interactions among decaying particles are not always symmetrical in nature. Before Wu’s measurements, the laws of physics had always shown complete symmetry between left and right—the world reflected in a mirror appeared no less possible than the world in front of it. As a result of her measurements, on the afternoon of January 15, 1957 the Department of Physics at Columbia University called a press conference to announce the dramatic overthrow of this basic law of physics, known as conservation of parity. The next day, The New York Times carried a front-page headline, “Basic Concept in Physics Reported Upset in Tests,” and the news quickly spread. (4)
By the end of 1957, Lee and Yang won the Nobel Peace Prize in Physics, but Wu was not recognized. As I’m sure HerStry readers can guess, it was not uncommon for women to be excluded from recognition during this time period, especially for women working in the sciences (2). At an MIT conference in 1964, she was quoted pondering, “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” (2).
Wu continued to have an impressive career, earning a multitude of awards and honors listed below in the the timeline. In 1965, she published her bookBeta Decay, which continues to be the standard reference for physicists today (4). Wu’s research throughout her career also lead to breakthroughs in our understanding of blood and sickle-cell anemia. In 1997, Wu died at the age of 84, after suffering a stroke. A year after that, she was inducted into the American National Women’s Hall of Fame (2). Through her work, there is no denying that Wu had a lasting change on the direction of the world as we know it.
Dearest HerStry readers, I leave you with my invitation for feedback. Suggestions, criticisms, questions, corrections - I want it all! I’m trying to help educate the HerStry community on the badass women of our past, but I still have a lot to learn myself.
Chien-Shiung Wu’s Timeline
Compiled from sources 1, 2, & 4
1912: Born May 31st in Taicang, Jiangsu, China.
1929: Admitted to National Central University (later Nanjing University).
1934: Graduates with BS from National Central University
1936: Took a position studying under Ernest Lawrence at University of California at Berkeley.
1940: Received a Ph.D. in Physics from the University of California, Berkeley.
1942 - 1944: Taught at Smith College, the University of California at Berkeley, and Princeton University, where she became the first woman instructor in the Physics Department.
1944 - 1980: Professor at Columbia University.
1944 - 1945: Worked on the Manhattan Project at Columbia.
1957: Physicists Tsung Dao Lee and Chen Ning Yang receive the Nobel Prize in Physics for their theory on beta decay and law of conservation of parity, which Wu confirmed experimentally.
1958: Elected to the National Academy of Sciences
1960: Received the Achievement Award from the American Association of University Women
1964: Awarded the Comstock Prize in Physics.
1965: Published book, Beta Decay
1969: Elected to the Royal Society of Edinburgh
1972: Elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences
1973: Elected first woman president of the American Physical Society & was the first living scientist to have an asteroid named after her
1975: Awarded the National Medal of Science & the Bonner Prize from the American Physical Society
1978: Awarded the very first Wolf Prize in Physics.
1991: Awarded Columbia’s Pupin Medal
1997: Died in New York, New York on February 16th
1998: Inducted into the American National Women’s Hall of Fame
Ashlee lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She is an Illinois native - grew up in the Chicago suburbs, went to school at Augustana College in Rock Island, IL, and lived in the city of Chicago up until 2015. In June 2015, she packed up with her partner and moved to the city she has absolutely fallen in love with, Pittsburgh! When she's not at work, she can typically be found in yoga class, working on the next edition of AMPLIFY, cuddling with George the cat, or enjoying trying to figure out what next home improvement task she is going to take on. Follow her nonsense on Twitter: @trashleeinpgh