Chien-Shiung Wu: A Brilliant Experimental Physicist

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Written by Natalie Mendoza 

There are two main types of physicists: theoretical physicists and experimental physicists. The job of a theoretical physicist is to postulate theories and write mathematical equations to explain observations of physical phenomena in the world. On the other hand, experimental physicists design and conduct experiments to test the theories proposed by theoretical physicists. Chien-Shiung Wu was a brilliant experimental physicist who made important contributions to physics and was a role model for other Chinese-American girls to follow in her footsteps and study science.
Education: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 ofbeta decay that occurs within an atom’s nucleus (Helmenstine, 2021). At Colombia, Wu experimentally confirmed Fermi’s theory of beta decay (Smeltzer, n.d.).
Career: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).
Although she did not earn the Nobel Prize for her work, Wu was the first woman who served as the president of the American Physical Society, and she was awarded the National Medal of Science, the Comstock Prize, and the Wolf Prize in physics (Smeltzer, n.d.). Furthermore, her book, Beta Decay, was published in1965 (Smeltzer, n.d.). Wu retired from Columbia University in 1981 (NPS, 2020). During her retirement, Wu shifted her focus to motivating and inspiring girls to study and find careers in the sciences (Angelucci, 2021). In 1997, Wu died from a stroke (NPS, 2020). Her legacy lives on as her book is continued to be used by nuclear physicists as a reference, her experimental research continues to shape our understanding of physics and the world we live in, and her story continues to inspire young girls to become scientists.
References:Angelucci, A. (2021). Dr. Chien-Shiung Wu. NationalWomen’s History Museum. Retrieved from
Han, X. (2020, December 10). Chien-Shiung Wu – a heroic experimental physicist.HarvardUniversity. Retrieved from
Harold, S. (2017, May 31). Chien-Shiung Wu and the conversion of parity.SciHi Blog. Retrieved from
Helmenstine, A. (2021, July 29). Beta decay definition. Retrieved from
Lewis, J. (2020, August 27). Chien-Shiung Wu: a pioneering female physicist. Retrieved from
National Park Service. (2020, January 23). Dr. Chien-Shiung Wu, the first lady of physics. National Park Service. Retrieved from
Smeltzer, R. (n.d.). Chien-Shiung Wu.Atomic HeritageFoundation. Retrieved from