Written by Natalie Mendoza
Chien-Shiung Wu grew up in a small city near Shanghai (Lewis, 2020). Both her father, an engineer, and her mother, a teacher, supported education for girls and consequently prioritized educating Wu (Lewis, 2020). In 1930, Wu graduated as the valedictorian from Soochow Girls’ School, where she learned English and other courses (Lewis, 2020). In 1934, Wu graduated from National Central University with a Bachelor’s degree in physics (Lewis, 2020). In 1936, Wu moved to the United States and began studying in a doctorate program in physics at UC Berkeley, from which she graduated with her Ph.D. in 1940 (Han, 2020). Wu became the first tenured female physics professor at Columbia University, where she researched beta decay (Han, 2020). Beta decay is a process of radioactive decay within an atom. It releases a beta particle and either a neutrino or an antineutrino depending on the kind of
beta decay that occurs within an atom’s nucleus (Helmenstine, 2021). At Colombia, Wu experimentally confirmed Fermi’s theory of beta decay (Smeltzer, n.d.).
Two theoretical physicists, Tsung Dao Lee and Chen Ning Yang approached Wu about designing an experiment on whether the law of conservation of parity remains true during beta decay (Smeltzer, n.d.). The conservation of parity law states that nuclear reactions do not hold preferences of “left” or “right” (Sack, 2017). Wu’s experiment tested her colleagues’ theory “by placing cobalt-60 into a strong electromagnetic field at temperatures near absolute zero. If the conservation of parity held true, particles expelled by the cobalt-60 as it decayed from radioactive to stable should fly off in all directions. What she observed was that more particles flew off in one direction” (National Park Service [NPS], 2020). In 1957, Lee and Yang were awarded the Nobel Prize in physics; however, Wu was denied credit (National Park Service, 2020).
Angelucci, A. (2021). Dr. Chien-Shiung Wu. NationalWomen’s History Museum. Retrieved from https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/dr-chien-shiung-wu
University. Retrieved from https://sitn.hms.harvard.edu/flash/2020/chien-shiung-wu-a-heroic-experimental-physi