Chien-Shuing Wu: A Woman in Physics

This month of informative articles starts with a very influential scientist who only much later received an acknowledgment for her work: Chien-Shiung Wu. 📝

She was a Chinese American experimental physicist who made significant contributions in the field of nuclear physics, a discipline that is mostly run by men. Discoveries in nuclear physics have led to applications in many fields, including nuclear power, nuclear weapons and nuclear medicine. Her nicknames include “First Lady of Physics”, “Chinese Madame Curie”,and the “Queen of Nuclear Research”. 📑⚛️

If you want to learn how she got all those nicknames, read the article below:

Chien-Shiung Wu| *31-05-1912| † 16-02-1997 | China | Physicist

Chien Shiung Wu was born on May 31st 1912 in the town of Liuhe in Taicang, the province of Jiangsu, China. She had an older brother, Chien-Ying, and a younger brother, Chien-Hao. Their names all mean “heroes and outstanding figures”, a more fitting name for this woman couldn’t be imagined. Wu was very close with her father Wu Zhong-Yi. He encouraged her to follow her dreams and created an environment of learning: full of books, magazines and newspapers. Wu went to an all-girls school, Mingde Vocational Continuing School for Women, that was founded by her father. At the age of 11 she went to a boarding school with classes for teachers training as well as regular high school classes. The admission to teacher training was quite competitive, but she managed to rank ninth among around 10,000 applicants, showing her potential for the future. In 1929, Wu graduated at the top of her class and was admitted to the University in Nanjing. From 1930 to 1934, Wu studied mathematics, but later transferred to physics. For two years after her graduation, she did graduate-level in physics and worked as an assistant at Zhejiang University. She then became a researcher. Via her supervisor she got interested in working abroad, which she did some years later.

To pursue her dream of working abroad, she started working as an early career physicist at Berkeley, US. The war had closed off the Pacific, making it impossible for her and her husband to go back to China or even correspond with their families back home. Wu faced strong sexism and even gender segregation in US academia. Initially she accepted a PhD position at the University of Michigan, but after hearing that the female students and academia couldn’t even use the front door of the student centre, she decided to stay at Berkeley. She never experienced gender discrimination during her education in China, so she was shocked by the way women in the US were treated. Unfortunately, Wu continued to face prejudice after completing her PhD. Nonetheless, she managed to become the first female faculty member at Princeton. There, Wu was a lone woman. In a 1990 interview, she even declared: “Women in America are really oppressed”. 

When enrolled at Berkeley, Wu studied under the renowned Manhattan Project physicists like Oppenheimer and Ernest Lawrence. Latter even supervised her doctoral work. In 1944 he supported her transfer to Columbia University in New York. At Columbia she became affiliated with the Manhattan project under the Division of War Research. Wu was known for her extreme precision. During her PhD – while working closely with the later Nobel Prize winner Emilio Segré – she investigated the role of xenon gas in uranium fission. Because of this research, Enrico Fermi asked her to help solve a central problem on the Manhattan Project: how to extract uranium-235, from the more stable uranium-238. Only the uranium-235 is fissile and could be used as an important segment of the nuclear bombs. This breakthrough later resulted in the bombs Little Boy and Fat Man. Little Boy was the codename for the type of atomic bomb dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima on the 6th of August in 1945. Fat Man destroyed all of Nagasaki. While Feynman, Oppenheimer and other men are most spoken about in the history of the Manhattan Project, little is known about the extensive work of non-Western and woman scientists who contributed to the development of the bombs, let alone non-Western women like Wu. The nuclear bombs destroyed more than some people might have wanted to and expected to happen, but being able to make a bomb like that is still quite the accomplishment. 

Wu kept researching nuclear physics after World War II had ended, being best known for the Wu Experiment, which proved that parity is not conserved. The theoretical physicists who originated the idea of parity non-conservation and proposed the experiment, received the 1957 Nobel Prize in physics for this result. Chien-Shiung Wu’s role in the discovery was mentioned in the Nobel Prize acceptance speech, but was not honoured until 1978, when she was awarded the first Wolf Prize. This award has been presented since 1978 to living scientists and artists for “achievements in the interest of mankind and friendly relations among people… irrespective of nationality, race, colour, religion, sex or political views.” Chien-Shiung Wu’s expertise in experimental physics evoked comparison to Marie Curie, the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, and the first person and only woman to win the Nobel Prize twice. Chien-Shiung Wu shouldn’t be overlooked anymore. 


Author: Anouk Wolkotte
Image: Smithsonian Institution Archives

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