Chien-Shiung Wu -- The Queen of Physics


Today is International Women's Day so it seems appropriate to continue with our learning about different women who made a difference in our world. Today I am featuring an international woman who was born in China and moved to America to further her education. Every year I like to focus on at least one woman in math or science, and today is the day. I was drawn to Chien-Shiung Wu. Perhaps it is that she was snubbed by the Noble Prize (due to a scandalous affair there is no Noble Prize for mathematics) or perhaps it is that she worked on the atomic bomb (I have a great uncle that I never met who also worked on it), but whatever the reason I decided to feature her today. 

Wu Chien-Shiung
Chien-Shiung Wu with Margaret Lewis (one of her good friends at Berkley) by Knottinghill, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Chien-Shiung Wu was born on May 31, 1912, in Liuhe, China to Zong-Yi and Fan Fu-Hua. Chien-Shiung means courageous hero. She was the second of three children and the only girl. This was a time when China was enforcing the one child rule and a time when girls were not typically educated. Her parents however did not agree with society and saw very quickly how intelligent Chien-Shiung was. Zong-Yi studied engineering at Nanyang Public School in Shanghai.  Zong-Yi started the first school for girls in the area called Ming De School. He served as the principal and Fan Fu-Hau was a teacher. This is the first school Chien-Shiung attended. She graduated from Ming De School at the age of nine. At age 11, she went to Suzhou Girls High School in Suzhou. It was a boarding school and 50 miles from Liuhe. Suzhou had two types of classes: a teacher-training program and a general high school program. Chien-Shiung chose the teacher-training program because it was free, and she was guaranteed a teaching job after completing it. She excelled in her classes. However, in the dorm she discovered that the girls in the other program got to learn more sciences and she wanted to learn more science. She began to borrow their books and teach herself! She would study while the other girls slept. She fell in love with physics during this time. 

In 1929 she graduated from high school at the top of her class. She was accepted into the National Central University in Nanjing, China. She wanted to go and study physics but feared her background was not strong enough in math and science. She enrolled at the National China College in Shanghai instead. Her father encouraged her to keep her sights on studying physics at National Central University. Once she felt prepared, she entered National Central University. At first, she majored in mathematics but switched to physics in her sophomore year. In 1934 she graduated with honors. She became a teaching assistant at Zhejiang University. The chair of the physics department offered her a chance to work in Academia Sinica where the government sponsored physics and chemistry research departments. There she worked with Jing-Wei Gu, who received her PhD in physics at the University of Michigan. She encouraged Chien-Shiung to go to America to further study physics and to come back with her knowledge. 

Her younger brother, Zhuo-Zhi was a wealthy businessman and offered funding for Chien-Shiung to study abroad. She was accepted at the University of Michigan. Her family gathered to see her off in Shanghai. When she arrived in the United States, she planned to visit a friend for a week in California before continuing to Michigan. Her friend's husband taught at the University of California, Berkley and introduced Chien-Shiung to the president of Berkley's Chinese Students' Association. She was also introduced to Luke Yuan. Chien-Shiung toured the physics department at Berkley and was impressed with the equipment and what was being taught. She also heard that at the University of Michigan females had to use a back entrance and she did not want to attend a school that treated women as second-class citizens. She decided to stay at Berkley. 

At this time there was a lot of discrimination against Asians. It was the time leading up to World War II and the Japanese were not well liked. Sadly, the hatred of Japanese was seen as hatred for any Asian. Chien-Shiung faced racism. She did decide to take on the western form of her name. In China her name is Wu Chien-Shiung, but in America she chose to put her family name last like the Americans do. She however continued to wear Chinese style clothes throughout her time in America. She received her PhD in 1940 and continued at Berkley as a postdoctoral research assistant. She became an expert in nuclear fission and lectured outside of the school.

Chieng-Shiung Wu's Wedding
Chien-Shiung Wu and Luke Yuan's Wedding
Source: Knottinghill, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In May 1942, Chien-Shiung married Luke Yuan in Pasadena, California. They now had to decide where to go next. Berkley would not hire Chien-Shiung as faculty. By this point Pearl Harbor had been bombed and there was a fear and hatred of Asians especially on the West Coast. Luke Yuan decided to take a job in Princeton, New Jersey. Chien-Shiung wanted to be close to her husband and found a job at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. They would meet in New York City on the weekends. She was however not satisfied with just teaching and with the help of one of her former professors she got eight job offers at major universities including ones where female students were not allowed yet. In 1943, she accepted the offer from Princeton and made history. She was the first female professor in the school's history. Her students were US Navy officers. They were sent to Princeton to learn physics. Chien-Shiung and Luke Yuan could finally be together. 

However, several months after starting at Princeton, Chien-Shiung was asked to interview for a job at Columbia University's Division of War Research. During the interview two physicists hammered Chien-Shiung with questions but were careful not to reveal the top-secret project they were working on. When they asked if she knew anything of what they were doing there she told them that if they didn't want her to know they should have erased the blackboard behind them. They hired her on the spot. As a noncitizen she received special permission and security clearance to work on the Manhattan Project. They were working on the development of the atomic bomb. By doing so she was also helping China get out from under the Japanese. Two of the bombs were used on Japan. The first was dropped on the city of Hiroshima, and the second on Nagasaki. This led to the Japanese surrendering and the end of World War II. (You can read books about the effect of the bombs in Japan here and here.)

After the War Chien-Shiung remained at Columbia University. She was given the position of research professor and she was able to continue researching. In February 1947 her son, Vincent, was born. He attended boarding school on Long Island and then went to school in New York City but often was on his own since his parents were so engrossed in their work.  

In 1949, Chien-Shiung took on researching an issue that many physicists were having difficulties proving a theory that she believed to be true. She made some adjustments to an old spectrometer. Her adjustments allowed her to prove the theory and get better measurements. When other physicists made the adjustments, they were able to complete the research. She solved a problem that stumped many top physicists. 

Both Chien-Shiung and Luke Yuan wanted to return to China but feared for their safety. Around this time China had been seized by the Communist Party. The United States was not permitting travel visas for people to return if they visited a Communist country. They feared they would not be able to come back to continue their research and see their friends. Zong-Yi advised Chien-Shiung to not return because the politics were so unstable at the time. In 1954, Chien-Shiung and Luke Yuan became naturalized citizens in the United States. 

In 1952 Columbia promoted Chien-Shiung to associate professor. She continued her research on beta decay. Her students saw her as fair even though she could be stern and push them. In May 1956 Tsung-Dao Lee asked Chien-Shiung for help with a problem he and his associate Chen Ning Yang were having. They believed the law of conservation of parity did not hold true for weak nuclear forces but could not prove it. Chien-Shiung was excited to research this and see what she could find. 

However, in 1956, Chien-Shiung and Luke Yuan planned a trip to Europe and Asia to attend the physics conference in Geneva, Switzerland and then lecture in Asia. It would be the first trip to China in two decades and a chance to see her family. She however decided to stay and work on the research. Sadly, this decision meant she would not see her parents alive again. She was very dedicated. She developed a plan and her team got to work. She worked hard and, in the end, proved that Lee and Yang were correct. They became overnight sensations including a front-page story in the New York Times. That year Lee and Yang were awarded the Noble Prize in Physics for their work, but Chien-Shiung was not. Many questioned whether she was excluded because she was a woman.

Chien-Shiung continued her research and teaching. In 1958 she was promoted to full professor. She was the first female to hold a tenured position in the physics department at Columbia. She won awards and proved more theories. She made more adjustments to the spectrometer. In 1975 she was the first female president of the American Physical Society and was awarded the National Medal of Science by President Gerald Ford. She was the first scientist to have an asteroid named after her while she was alive. In 1978 she became the first person to receive the Wolf Prize in Physics. She retired from Columbia in 1981. She spent her time helping with educational programs in China, Taiwan, and the United States. She also was a huge advocate for promoting girls in STEM.  She died on February 16, 1997, in New York City. The book, Beta Decay, that she wrote in 1965 is still used today as a standard reference for nuclear physicists. 

As you can see, she did some amazing things in her lifetime. To help you teach kids about her, I found some children's books about her. Some of these books are my sources for this story. The two books on the top row to the right I have not read.  

Additional Source: Worthen, Meredith. The Website. "Chien-Shiung Wu Biography." (17 May 2021)

After learning about Chien-Shiung Wu, I hope you will encourage your girls to try more STEM activities. Plus teach about physics. Ducksters has some information about nuclear physics. Here are some physics activities for young kids. A simple Google search will give you lots of possibilities. Enjoy!