Recognizing Chien-Shiung Wu
March 20th, 2018 | Danielle Rein, Community Learning Specialist
March is Women’s History Month and to celebrate we’ll be sharing the stories of amazing women who have contributed to the fields of science, math, technology, and engineering.
Known as the “First Lady of Physics” and the “Queen of Nuclear Research” Chien-Shiung Wu was a prominent Chinese American nuclear physicist. She worked on the Manhattan Project and taught for some of the best American universities. Her work earned a Nobel Prize, though she was not recognized due to her gender. Her later life took her back to China where she advocated for girls in science and tech fields.
Chien-Shiung Wu was born near Shanghai, China, on May 31, 1912. Wu’s mother was a teacher and her father was an engineer, so they made education a priority for her. They pushed her to study science and math while she attended Mingde Women’s Vocational Continuing School, one of the first schools that allowed girls. For college, Wu attended one of the best schools in China, Nanjing University. It was there that she changed her major from mathematics to physics.
After receiving her Bachelor of Science degree, she worked for a lab that researched X-ray crystallography under professor Jing-Wei Gu. She encouraged Wu to travel to the United States for her graduate degree. She attended California Berkley and her graduate work focused on the fission products of uranium. Wu finished her Ph.D. in 1940 and began working at Smith College, a few years later she became an associate professor at Princeton University. She then joined the Manhattan Project at Columbia University where she figured out how to enrich uranium ore. She left the project in 1945.
Subsequently, Wu stayed at Columbia for the rest of her working career in the physics department. It was there that she met two theoretical physicists who would win a Nobel Prize for her experiment. It was called the Wu Experiment and it disproved the law of conservation of parity. After being snubbed for the Nobel Prize because of her gender, she is quoted as saying “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.”
Wu retired in 1981 and spent her time working with schools in China, Taiwan, and the US. She became a role model for girls due to her advocacy of STEM education. Chien-Shiung Wu made a career out of breaking the mold. She was a brilliant physicist that inspired generations of female scientists and mathematicians.
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