The 110th anniversary of the birth of nuclear physicist Wu Chien-shiung was celebrated in May with events held both online and offline in Nanjing and Taicang, Jiangsu province. In September, a global online symposium will be held to further honor this important milestone. Although Wu may not be a household name like Marie Curie or Richard Feynman, she was one of the most influential nuclear physicists of the 20th century, revolutionizing the way humans view the universe.
Wu Chien-shiung was born in China and spent the majority of her life in the United States, but she considered herself to be “forever a Chinese”. Her contributions to the field of nuclear physics have earned her numerous accolades, including the National Medal of Science in 1975 and the Wolf Prize in Physics in 1978.
Wu’s work focused on the nature of beta decay, a process in which a neutron in an atom’s nucleus decays into a proton, an electron, and an electron antineutrino. She helped to develop a method for determining the nature of the weak force, which governs beta decay, and provided crucial evidence for the violation of the law of conservation of parity in weak interactions. This groundbreaking discovery changed the prevailing view of the universe and had far-reaching implications for our understanding of the basic forces of nature.
Wu also played a significant role in the Manhattan Project, the effort to develop the first atomic bomb during World War II. She worked on separating isotopes of uranium, a crucial step in the production of the bomb. Despite her involvement in the project, Wu was a vocal advocate for peace and the responsible use of nuclear technology.
Wu faced numerous challenges throughout her career, including discrimination as a woman and as an immigrant. Despite these obstacles, she persevered and became a role model for future generations of women in science. Her achievements serve as a reminder of the importance of diversity and inclusion in STEM fields and inspire others to follow in her footsteps.
The 110th anniversary of Wu Chien-shiung’s birth provides an opportunity to recognize her tremendous contributions to the field of nuclear physics and to honor her legacy as a trailblazer for women and minorities in science. Her work continues to inspire new discoveries and has helped to shape our understanding of the universe.
The birth of nuclear physicist Wu Chien-shiung on May 31, 1912 in Liuhe town, Taicang coincided with a time of great change in China. The end of the feudal system, which had lasted for over two thousand years, brought about a new era of progressive thought as people sought to rejuvenate their country. It was in this context that Wu was raised and nurtured.
Wu’s father, Wu Zhongyi, received a modern education in Shanghai and went on to make a significant impact on the community. In 1913, he founded the first school for girls in Taicang, breaking down the outdated and sexist belief that women were not meant to be educated. This school, now known as Mingde Senior Middle School, continues to inspire and educate future generations.
Wu’s father was a man who possessed the best of both worlds, having absorbed the benefits of Western ideas while still holding onto the great thoughts rooted in Chinese culture. This unique blend of influences exerted a profound impact on Wu Chien-shiung’s life and shaped her into the accomplished physicist she became. Wu’s father’s teachings of the importance of education and his passion for breaking down gender barriers had a lasting impact on Wu and inspired her to pursue her own path in the field of physics.
Despite the fact that Wu Chien-shiung is not a household name in China or the United States, where she spent most of her life, she was one of the most influential nuclear physicists of the 20th century. Her contributions to the field of physics have changed our understanding of the universe in a profound and lasting way. The 110th anniversary of her birth is being celebrated both online and offline, with events being held in Nanjing and Taicang, and a global online symposium set to take place in mid-September. The celebrations serve to honor her achievements and remind us of her legacy in the field of physics.
Wu Chien-shiung was a woman who defied the odds and made history in a male-dominated field. Despite spending most of her life in the United States, Wu always stayed true to her roots, often wearing a traditional qipao, a Chinese gown. Throughout her career, she faced unequal treatment but never gave up or lowered her standards.
Wu was born in Liuhe town, Taicang, where the Yangtze River flows into the East Sea, in a time of great change in China as the feudal system was coming to an end and new thoughts and ideas were emerging. Her father, Wu Zhongyi, was a man ahead of his time, having received a modern education in Shanghai and going on to found the first school for girls in Taicang in 1913 with the aim of breaking down sexist beliefs that women lacked talents. This school has since become Mingde Senior Middle School. Wu’s father’s blending of Western ideas with deep-rooted Chinese culture would have a profound impact on her life.
Wu went on to study physics at the former National Central University in Nanjing before enrolling at the University of California, Berkeley at the age of 24 to further her studies. Over the course of her 44-year career as a nuclear physicist, Wu achieved unprecedented success and was dubbed the “Chinese Madame Curie,” the “Queen of Nuclear Research,” and the “First Lady of Physics.”
Wu broke barriers and made history in several ways. She was the first woman to be elected president of the American Physical Society, the first female winner of the Comstock Prize in physics given by the US National Academy of Sciences, the first person to receive the Wolf Prize in physics, the first woman to receive an honorary doctorate from Princeton University, and the first female professor of physics in the history of Columbia University.
In recognition of her contributions to the field, the Purple Mountain Observatory of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Nanjing named an asteroid after her in 1990 (2752 Wu Chien-shiung). Wu’s determination and achievements serve as an inspiration to women everywhere and a reminder that even in the face of adversity, it is possible to achieve greatness.
Wu Chien-shiung was a renowned nuclear physicist who made exceptional contributions to the field. Throughout her 44-year career, she was often referred to as the “Chinese Madame Curie,” the “queen of nuclear research,” and the “first lady of physics.” This was due to her many firsts in the field of physics, including being the first woman to be elected as the president of the American Physical Society, the first female recipient of the Comstock Prize in physics, the first person to receive the Wolf Prize in physics, and the first woman to receive an honorary doctorate from Princeton University. She was also the first female professor of physics in the history of Columbia University.
Wu’s contributions to the field of physics are numerous and highly respected. She was the first to confirm Enrico Fermi’s theory of beta decay, which explained how radioactive atoms become more stable and less radioactive. Wu was meticulous in her experiments and had a reputation for accuracy. Her hard work and attention to detail earned her the respect of her peers, who often said that if Wu conducted an experiment, it was guaranteed to be correct.
In 1956, Wu was approached by Tsung-dao Lee and C.N. Yang to test their theory of parity non-conservation in weak interactions. This experiment, which Wu organized and led, challenged the long-held belief in the conservation of parity and turned the scientific community’s understanding of the universe on its head. Despite the skepticism and derision of her peers, Wu’s experiment showed that in weak interactions, parity was not conserved. Her findings were so groundbreaking that Lee and Yang went on to win the Nobel Prize in physics the following year.
Throughout her career, Wu faced significant challenges due to gender inequality. Despite her numerous accomplishments, she was not recognized fairly and had to fight to be seen and respected in a field dominated by men. It wasn’t until 1958 that she was promoted to professor at Columbia University, where she had been working since 1944. In 1964, Wu addressed the issue of gender inequality in a speech at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she asked whether atoms, mathematical symbols, and DNA molecules had any preference for either masculine or feminine treatment.
In recognition of her contributions to physics, the US Postal Service issued a Chien-shiung Wu commemorative forever stamp in 2021 to honor her as one of the most influential nuclear physicists of the 20th century. Wu’s legacy continues to inspire women and girls around the world to push past barriers and reach for the stars. She returned to her homeland in China several times over the years, giving lectures and academic reports at universities and setting up a scholarship and a library at Nanjing University. Wu’s life and work serve as a reminder of what can be achieved through perseverance and determination.