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Five Fast Facts about Physicist Chien-Shiung Wu

March 17, 2016 - 2:18pm


Nuclear Physicist Chien-Shiung Wu is our third woman in STEM #ThrowbackThursday for 2016. | Illustration by <a href="/node/1332956/">Carly Wilkins, Energy Department</a>.

Nuclear Physicist Chien-Shiung Wu is our third woman in STEM #ThrowbackThursday for 2016. | Illustration by Carly Wilkins, Energy Department.

It’s Women’s History Month on During the month of March, we’re highlighting the great contributions to science, technology, engineering and mathematics or STEM fields made by women of color throughout history, as well as taking a look at fascinating work that women are doing in STEM fields today.

Chien-Shiung Wu (1912-1997) was an experimental physicist who is best known for her work on the Manhattan Project. She helped two colleagues win the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1957 based on the Wu experiment, which showed that a hypothetical physics law at the time was completely wrong about a type of symmetry in the weak nuclear force. She taught at both Princeton and Columbia Universities and won multiple awards for her work.

Here are some more facts about Wu that you might not know.

  1. She earned many nicknames for her expertise, including the “Chinese Madame Curie,” the “Queen of Nuclear Research” and the “First Lady of Physics.” Her students at Columbia University called her “the Dragon Lady” after a character in a popular comic strip.
  2. Wu, who was born and raised in China, came to America at the age of 24 to study at the University of Michigan. But her plans changed after she visited the University of California, Berkeley. At Berkeley Ernest O. Lawrence -- who founded both Lawrence Berkeley and Lawrence Livermore National Labs -- became her supervisor.
  3. Her doctoral research on radioactive isotopes was critical to the success of the B-reactor in Hanford. In September 1944, the reactor began unexpectedly starting up and shutting down again. Wu helped them figure out that xenon-135, a product of fission, was the culprit.
  4. She met and married a fellow physicist, Luke Chia-Liu Yuan, who was also the grandson of Yuan Shikai, the first President of the Republic of China from 1912-1916. The couple met at the University of California, Berkeley and were married in 1942. Because of the outbreak of the War in the Pacific, neither of their families attended their wedding. Wu did not take her husband’s name in marriage and would correct students who mistakenly called her Professor Yuan.  
  5. Before the Wu experiment, there was no unambiguous way to describe left and right without basically pointing at some visible or previously defined object and saying “that’s the left side, that’s the right side.”  If we ever make radio contact with aliens, we’re going to need the Wu experiment to describe that simple and biologically important concept.