Dr. Chien-Shiung Wu

 

Dr. Wu was born May 31, 1912 in Luihe, China. She had a very happy childhood. Her father strongly believed in equality for women. Her father owned and ran what would be our version of an elementary school. Her father believed that women should be educated and not just to become teachers, nurses, and homemakers. He supported and encouraged Chien-Shiung throughout her education process. Chien-Shiung means "courageous hero," and her father named her this because he knew she would become true to her name.1

When Chien-Shiung was nine years old she graduated from her father's school and was sent to a boarding school named Soochow Girls School, located in Suzhou, China. In order to continue her education she and her father knew she had to leave home. This school also had a high school, which was divided into two parts.

When it was time for Chien-Shiung to attend high school she did not know what she wanted to study. The high school offered "an academic school and a normal school to train teachers."2 She ended up putting down that she wanted to study teaching. She lived in a dorm with several other female students. When they were all studying at night, Chien-Shiung noticed that a few of the other girls had interesting and challenging textbooks on Physics, Mathematics, and Chemistry. She began borrowing and studying her roommate’s textbooks.

Chien-Shiung graduated from high school in 1930 at the age of seventeen. She received the highest grades in her class. During the summer of 1930, Chien-Shiung received notice that she had been selected to attend "...China's elite National Center University in Nanjing."3 Chien-Shiung was beside herself. She was terrified. She knew that she wanted to study Physics, but she also knew that she did not know enough about Physics and Mathematics and would have to continue studying education.

Chien-Shiung's father thought differently. Chien-Shiung was very lucky, for her father was an intelligent businessman and money was not a worry. The day after having received her letter, her father came home from work and with him he had a package. When Chien-Shiung opened the package she found "...three books on advanced mathematics, chemistry, and physics."4 Her father stated that she had plenty of time to study before she was to attend the University in Nanjing. Chien-Shiung proved her father right and taught herself the three subjects. " ' If it hadn't been for my father's encouragement, I would be teaching grade school somewhere in China now, ' she stated years later."5

Chien-Shiung graduated from the University in Nanjing in 1934. In 1936 she traveled by ship to San Francisco, California. While she was in the United States, in 1937, Japan invaded China and Chien-Shiung was cut off from her family. She was devastated. She did not know what to do, for she could do nothing. She received much attention and care from her new friends, but nothing comforted Chien-Shiung as much as work. In 1940 she received her Ph.D. in Physics from the University of Berkeley. Dr. Chien-Shiung Wu married a man named Luke Yuan, who was also a physicist, and who she had met at Berkeley. In 1947, her son, Vincent Weichen Yuan, was born. Dr. Wu, her husband and Vincent moved into a Columbia apartment two blocks from her laboratory so that she could move quickly between home and lab. Yuan worked at Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island, about two hours away from Columbia. Each Monday morning her husband commuted by train to Brookhaven, where he stayed during the week, they returned home on Fridays. Yuan was skilled at experimental techniques. On Fridays he would help Dr. Wu and her students with their physics experiments. When her son was old enough, he attended a boarding school in Long Island for grades one through four. His school was near Brookhaven where his father worked and the two returned home together for weekends. In the fifth grade, he studies at the Collegiate School in Manhattan, and then transferred to the highly competitive Bronz High School of Science. During eighth grade, he stayed in a French boarding school o learn French while his father was on sabbatical in Europe. Vincent became a physicist like his parents.

In 1945 the Japanese surrendered and Chien-Shiung finally received word from her family. She was elated and her family was proud. In 1946, Dr. Chien-Shiung Wu submerged herself in the research of beta decay. She worked long, hard hours. Her students and co-workers called her a "slave driver" and the perfect image of a "militant woman." (Nobel Prize Women in Science, page 269) In 1947 Dr. Chien-Shiung Wu gave birth to a boy and named him Vincent Weichen Yuan.

Dr. Chien-Shiung Wu worked on beta decay until 1981. To sum up her profound accomplishments, "The New York Post wrote, ' This small modest woman was powerful enough to do what armies can never accomplish; she helped destroy a law of nature. And laws of nature, by their very definition, should be constant, continuous, immutable, indestructible.' "6 Dr. Chien-Shiung Wu had "...ruled out the Law of Parity, which had originally asserted that all processes in nature take place as if the whole set up were mirror reversed. She also confirmed the Conservation of Vector Current, which states that the weak force used in beta decay is related to electromagnetic forces."

In 1957 Dr. Chien-Shiung Wu lost the Nobel Prize to her two male colleagues, Dr. Chen Ning Yang and Dr. Tsung Dao Lee. She was disappointed, but her husband and her colleagues all stated they knew she was the one who had really won. Dr. Chien-Shiung Wu has, however, won every other science medal possible, like the National Medal of Science, the Research Corporation Award, and the first Doctorate Award to women.8 Dr. Wu's son, Vincent Wei-Chen, has followed in his parents footsteps and become a physicist. He stated that neither of his parents pushed him into science, of which he is grateful. Dr. Chien-Shiung Wu died in 1997.

Honors:

Member National Academy of Sciences (elected 1958)

Research Corporation Award 1958

Achievement Award, American Association of University Women 1960

Comstock Award, National Academy of Sciences 1964

Chi-Tsin Achievement Award, Chi-Tsin Culture Foundation, Taiwan 1965

Scientist of the Year Award, Industrial Research Magazine 1974

Tom Bonner Prize, American Physical Society 1975

National Medal of Sciences (U.S.) 1975

Wolf Prize in Physics, Israel 1978

Honorary Fellow Royal Society of Edinburg

Fellow American Academy of Arts and Sciences

Fellow American Association for the Advancement of Science

Fellow American Physical Society

List of Firsts:

First female instructor in the physics department of Princeton University.

First woman to receive an honorary doctorate from Princeton University.

First women to be elected President of the American Physical Society (1975).

"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."

"Dr. Wu’s father advised her when she embarked on her scientific career: "Ignore the obstacles . . . just put you head down and keep walking forward."

 

Bibliography

 

McGrayne, Sharon Bertsch. Nobel Prize Women in Science. Carol Publishing Group:

New York ©1993. p. 277.

Sean C. Dr. Chien-Shiung Wu © 1997

http://www.davison.k12.mi.us/dms/projects/women/mwu.htm

 

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