Rediscover STEAM
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Rediscover STEAM

Chien-Shiung Wu, Experimental Physicist

Chien-Shiung Wu was a Chinese-American physicist, who is often referred to as the First Lady of physics. She was a woman of many talents, but her most notable achievement was disproving the hypothetical law of conservation of parity (the idea that “for fundamental physical interactions, it is impossible to distinguish right from left and clockwise from counterclockwise”) while working on the Manhattan Project.

Wu was born on May 31, 1912, in Liu He, a town near Shanghai. Since she was young, her family emphasised her education because her mother was a teacher and her father held a career in the engineering field. Both of her parents encouraged Wu to pursue science and mathematics. She attended an elementary school that was founded by her father; it was one of the first schools that admitted women. After graduating from a boarding school in 1930, she enrolled in one of the oldest and most prestigious universities in China, Nanjing University, where she first decided to pursue a mathematics degree. However, she later switched her major to physics because of Marie Curie’s influence. After she graduated in 1934, she became a research assistant for a year. During this time, her mentor encouraged her to pursue advanced education in America. Wu decided to follow that advice, and in 1936 she arrived in San Francisco to study at University of California, Berkeley. Wu’s graduate work was focused in the area of uranium fission products.

After completing her Ph.D. at Berkeley in 1940, she married another physicist who worked alongside her, and together they ended up moving to the East Coast. Dr. Wu taught physics at both Smith College and Princeton. After two years, Dr Wu took employment at Columbia and participated in the Manhattan Project with her focus being primarily on the theory of beta decay. While researching, there was an incident where the B Reactor at Hanford mysteriously closed up, and Wu was able to identify poisoning by xenon-135.

Chien-Shiung Wu and her colleagues at Columbia University

Soon, World War II ended, and Wu was offered a permanent position at Columbia as a researcher, an offer she took. She continued investigating beta decay and was able to accomplish many feats, one of which was confirming Enrico Fermi’s theory of beta decay. In 1956, she was able to partake in an experiment hosted by two theoretical physicists. These two physicists wanted Wu to devise an experiment using her expertise to prove that the law of conservation of parity did not hold during beta decay. She experimented and concluded that identical nuclear particles do not always act alike, for which the two theoretical physicists received a Nobel Prize. Although Wu was the one who performed and carried out the experiment, she was never mentioned or acknowledged.

Just like Marie Curie inspired her, Chien-Shiung Wu inspired dozens of students at the different universities she worked at, as well as her son. She helped solve biological questions involving sickle cell anaemia and received awards such as the National Medal of Science and Princeton University. Wu also ended up writing her book Beta Decay, which is still used to this day as a standard reference. Chien-Shiung Wu passed away due to complications of a stroke on February 16, 1997, at the age of 84.

by Galiba Anjum

References

“Chien-Shiung Wu.” Atomic Heritage Foundation, 2019, www.atomicheritage.org/profile/chien-shiung-wu

“Chien-Shiung Wu.” Biography, June 2016, www.biography.com/chien-shiung-wu

“Dr. Chien-Shiung Wu, The First Lady of Physics (U.S. National Park Service).” Nps.Gov, 2013, www.nps.gov/people/dr-chien-shiung-wu-the-first-lady-of-physics.htm

“Lawrence and His Laboratory : A History of the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory : Heilbron, J. L : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive.” Internet Archive, 2014, www.archive.org/details/lawrencehislabor00heil/page/n11/mode/2up

“The National Medal of Science 50th Anniversary | National Science Foundation.” Nsf.Gov, 2020, www.nsf.gov/news/special_reports/medalofscience50/wu.jsp

“Parity | Particle Physics”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 2020, https://www.britannica.com/science/parity-particle-physics

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