“There is only one thing worse than coming from the lab to a sink full of dirty dishes and that is not going to the lab at all.”
Dr. Chien-Shiung Wu (吳健雄)
Experimental physicist, known as the “First Lady of Physics”
Wu’s portrait in the Fearless Portraits project consists of an Ink drawing on a map of Manhattan, New York City. Columbia University, where she worked, is located in the collar of her lab coat on the left side.
The laws of physics are immutable. Constants in an ever-changing universe. Since 1925, physicists had accepted the parity principle—which dictates that nature is symmetrical and two mirror-image systems will behave in identical fashion to each other—as scientific fact.
That is, until 30 years later, when Dr. Wu did the impossible and proved the Law of Conservation of Parity wrong.
A world-renowned physicist at Columbia University, Wu was approached by colleagues Tsung-Dao Lee and Chen-Ning Yang in 1956 with the idea of testing a theory on the parity principle’s limitations. Famously dedicated to her work, Wu canceled her planned trip to Europe and Asia to test the theory she herself gave a one-in-a-million chance of being correct.
Her experiment found electrons behaving asymmetrically, shattering what had been a fundamental concept in nuclear physics. Her findings shocked the scientific community and won the Nobel Prize in Physics the following year. In what was widely panned as one of the greatest mistakes by the Nobel committee, the award went to Wu’s collaborators, Yang and Lee, while Wu herself was not honored for her monumental achievement until 1978 when she was given the inaugural Wolf Prize.
Background on Wu
The Nobel snub was far from the first time Wu encountered sexism.
Born on May 31, 1912, in the village of Liuhe in Jiangsu province, China, near Shanghai. There was no school for girls in the village, so her father founded one. She excelled in her studies, going on to college and graduating at the top of her class with a degree in physics in 1934.
She came to the US to continue her studies at the University of Michigan, but was shocked at the sexism she encountered. Upon learning female students were not even allowed to use the front entrance at UMich, she enrolled at UC Berkeley where she earned her Ph.D.
Shortly after, in 1942, she took a job at Princeton University, where she became the first woman hired as a faculty member of the physics department. Two years later, she joined Manhattan Project’s laboratories at Columbia University. She stayed at Columbia until her retirement in 1981.
Wu traveled and lectured widely, encouraging young women to follow in her footsteps and build careers in STEM. A fierce critic of gender barriers and discrimination—particularly in science—she said, “I sincerely doubt that any open-minded person really believes in the notion that women have no intellectual capacity for science and technology.”
This episode contains music by Geovane Bruno and Hot_Music.
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- UKRI. (2018, February 18). Chien-Shiung Wu. UKRI.Org. https://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/ukgwa/20211223122104/https://stfc.ukri.org/news-events-and-publications/features/chien-shiung-wu/
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