This Brilliant Female Physicist Was Overlooked for a Nobel Prize

Chien-Shiung Wu gives her AAUW Achievement Award acceptance speech, 1959.

Chien-Shiung Wu accepting the 1959 AAUW Achievement Award. Find more archival photos of our Achievement Award winners on Pinterest.

September 11, 2013

History is full of household names … the Roosevelts, the Kennedys — you know, those familiar names from textbooks. But often if you dig a little deeper, the most moving stories involve names still in relative obscurity. Chien-Shiung Wu is a perfect example.

Born in 1912, Wu was raised in a small town in Taicang, China. Her father was an advocate for girls’ education and had founded a women’s school in China. He imparted his educational philosophy to his daughter: Wu studied physics at National Central University in Nanjing. At the time, there were no postdoctoral programs in physics in China, so Wu immigrated to the United States to attend the University of California, Berkeley. There she earned a doctorate degree in physics in 1940, studying nuclear fission. From Berkeley, she went on to teaching positions first at Smith College and then Princeton University.

During World War II, Wu worked on the Manhattan Project at Columbia University. She developed a process of enriching uranium to produce large quantities as fuel. Wu would remain at Columbia in the physics department until her retirement.

In 1956, Wu devised an experiment with revolutionary results. Her colleagues Tsung-Dao Lee and Chen Ning Yang proposed a theory that would disprove a widely accepted law of physics at the time called the Parity Law. Parity Law stated that objects that are mirror images of each other behave in the same way. Wu’s experiment spun radioactive cobalt-60 nuclei at low temperatures. If the law held, the electrons would shoot off in paired directions. Wu’s experiment demonstrated that they did not.

Wu’s work was termed the most important development in the field of atomic and nuclear physics to date; a 1959 AAUW press release called her experiment the “solution to the number-one riddle of atomic and nuclear physics.” Her male co-workers Lee and Yang received the Nobel Prize for disproving the Parity Law. In a move that makes you mad just reading it, the prize committee overlooked Wu.

A clipping from the "AAUW Journal" announcing Wu's Achievement Award

The October 1959 “AAUW Journal” article announcing Wu’s Achievement Award

Despite the obvious omission, Wu received many accolades for her work. AAUW was among the many organizations and groups that recognized and honored her contributions to the field of physics. In 1959, she received the AAUW Achievement Award. In speaking of her work, Janet Howell Clark of the AAUW Fellowships Awards Committee, said Wu’s research “led to the solution of mysteries on the fringe of human knowledge.” In her acceptance speech, Wu said, “It is the courage to doubt what has long been established and the incessant search for its verification and proof that pushes the wheel of science forward.”

Chien-Shiung Wu led a life of many firsts: the first woman president of the American Physical Society, the first woman to receive an honorary doctorate from Princeton, the first female recipient of the National Academy of Sciences’ Comstock Prize. I could continue the list, but frankly it is too long for this blog.

In keeping with the spirit of her father and of AAUW, Wu was acutely aware of gender discrimination in her chosen field, knowing she was neither the first nor would be the last to face it. She advocated for women to persist in pursuing careers in sciences despite these barriers, saying, “There is only one thing worse than coming home from the lab to a sink full of dirty dishes, and that is not going to the lab at all!”

Suzanne Gould By:   |   September 11, 2013


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