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May 31

Chien-Shiung Wu Photo Credit: Acc. 90-105 - Science Service, Records, 1920s-1970s, Smithsonian Institution Archives

Today in Science

Physicist Chien-Shiung Wu Born

Experimental physicist Chien-Shiung Wu was born on this day in 1912.

One of the physicists responsible for disproving the principle of conservation of parity, a law of symmetry then considered a fundamental law of nature, Chien-Shiung Wu’s career was marked by a series of pioneering firsts. Dr. Wu was born outside of Shanghai during an era when most girls in China were taught at home, if at all. Her father opened one of the first schools for girls in the country.

Wu showed aptitude for science, eventually earning her degree from National Central University in Nanjing and moving to the United States in 1936 to pursue her doctorate. She became the first female physics instructor at Princeton, as well as the first woman to earn an honorary degree from that institution. She was later appointed the first Pupin Professor of Physics at Columbia University. In 1975 she became the first woman elected President of the American Physical Society, a foremost association of physicists in the U.S.

Dr. Wu was well respected as an experimental physicist. Much of her work was in radioactive decay, and she participated in the Manhattan Project where she helped develop fuel for the first nuclear bombs. Her book, Beta Decay, remains one of the seminal texts of nuclear science. Her reputation as a meticulous experimenter led other scientists to approach her for help in testing their theories through experiment. It was in this way that Wu became involved in one of her most famous and pioneering works, disproving the law of parity by demonstrating that weak nuclear interactions led to assymmetric atomic emissions.

Although she did not share in the Nobel Prize awarded to the theoretical physicists with whom she collaborated on that project, Dr. Wu’s work was recognized with numerous other awards throughout her career. She received the National Medal of Science, the inaugural Wolf Award, and the Comstock Award of the National Academy of Sciences, of which she was the first female recipient. Known as the "First Lady of Physics," she also was the first living scientist to have an asteroid named after her.

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