By Ashanti “Accel” Henderson, Staff Writer
Asian-American women have long been pioneers in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields. In the world of science, Chinese-American scientist Chien-Shiung Wu is hailed as the first lady of physics, but you have probably never heard or read about her in history class. Some believe that her gender and race are reasons why she is not a household name like Albert Einstein and Julius Robert Oppenheimer, despite having collaborated with both men on the Manhattan Project for which she developed a process to yield bomb-grade uranium.
Wu was born in a small town in Taicang, China. Her parents were advocates for her education, especially her father, who encouraged her to persevere through the obstacles she would face as a woman in the sciences. She attended a girls’ school founded by her parents up until the fourth grade before going off to boarding school.
Wu went on to earn her bachelors from the National Central University in Nanjing and her doctoral degree in nuclear fission from the University of California at Berkeley in 1940. Just a couple of years after graduation, she would become the first woman to become an instructor in Princeton University’s physics department.
Wu is known for challenging not only conceptions of women but also the fundamental laws of theoretical physics. In 1956, two of her male colleagues, Tsung Dao Lee of Columbia and Chen Ning Yang of Princeton solicited Wu’s help in proving “that the principle of parity conservation does not hold in weak subatomic interactions” (Britannica).
Wu led a team of scientists in undergoing a series of experiments to test this hypothesis. By the following year, she had effectively solved “the number one riddle of atomic and nuclear physics” (American Association of University Women) by providing the world with the first experimental evidence disproving the absolutism of parity symmetry, or the theory that objects that are mirror images of each other behave in the same manner.
Her findings changed the field of physics, bringing her international acclaim but not inclusion in the Nobel Prize (1957) awarded to her colleagues Lee and Yang, who proposed, but did not test, the idea. Undeterred, Dr. Wu set out the following year to investigate the proposal of another two of her male colleagues: the conservation of vector current in nuclear beta decay. Later, she would branch into biophysics, doing research on sickle-cell anemia.
Even though she was passed over for a Nobel Prize, several organizations have recognized the legacy of Wu as the leading experimental physicist of her time. Described by her colleagues as a “giant” in a field where women too often occupy limited space, the first lady of physics is a woman of many firsts.
Having already become the first woman to teach in Princeton’s physics department, Wu later became the first woman to receive an honorary degree from Princeton. She became the first female president of the American Physical Society in 1975, the same year she was awarded the National Medal of Science, the nation’s highest scientific award, for her innovative experiments in radioactive beta decay. She was also the first woman to receive the Cyrus B. Comstock Award of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. In 1978, she became the first person to be awarded the Wolf Prize in Physics from the Wolf Foundation in Israel.
Throughout her lifetime, Wu received many awards, honors and honorary degrees and professorships. Upon retiring in 1981, Wu, acutely aware of gender discrimination, continued to advocate for young women in the field of science and in 1990, an asteroid was named in her honor, representing the undeniable impact she had on the realm of science. Wu’s life is truly encouragement for all girls to reach for the stars.
Feature image: Smithsonian Institution from United States – Chien-shiung Wu (1912-1997) Uploaded by Fæ. Via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Chien-shiung_Wu_(1912-1997)_(3).jpg#/media/File:Chien-shiung_Wu_(1912-1997)_(3).jpg
Article image: By Smithsonian Institution (Flickr: Chien-shiung Wu (1912-1997)) [see page for license], via Wikimedia Commons