A collage with physicist Chien-Shiung Wu at a machine, against a backdrop of written equations and other machinery.

442: Meet the First Lady of Physics

From her work on the Manhattan Project to the experiment that bears her name, Chien-Shiung Wu’s contributions to physics resonate to this day

Chien-Shiung Wu was the only Chinese person to work on the Manhattan Project.

Illustration by Vivian Lai

Words by Samantha Pak

The 442: A JoySauce column named after the military unit, designed to school you (in all the best ways) on accomplished Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders of the past. Asians have been shaping American history, culture, food, politics, identity, and more for centuries—it’s time we acknowledge what’s been left out of most textbooks.

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Nowadays, the name most associated with nuclear weapons is J. Robert Oppenheimer—undoubtedly aided by the release of Christopher Nolan’s film last year.

But there’s another name most people don’t know, but should: Chien-Shiung Wu (May 31, 1912-Feb. 16, 1997). With an expertise in experimental physics, she earned nicknames such as the “First Lady of Physics,” the “Chinese Madame Curie,” and the “Queen of Nuclear Research.” She was also the only Chinese person to work on the Manhattan Project during WWII, a research and development program focused on producing the first nuclear weapons.

Born in a small fishing village just north of Shanghai, Wu was the only daughter and middle child of a teacher mother and engineer father. At a time when it was uncommon for girls to go to school in China, Wu attended Mingde Women’s Vocational Continuing School, which was founded by her father, who believed girls should receive an education. Both he and Wu’s mother encouraged Wu in science and math from an early age. Wu eventually attended National Central University in Nanking, China (now known as Nanjing University), initially studying mathematics before switching to physics after she was inspired by Marie Curie. She graduated with top honors at the head of her class in 1934.

At the encouragement of her mentor, a fellow female physicist named Jing-Wei Gu, and with financial support from an uncle, Wu traveled to the United States to continue her education. According to the National Park Service, Wu was likely processed through Angel Island in San Francisco Bay. Wu earned her doctorate degree in physics in 1940 from the University of California, Berkeley. A few years later, Wu and her husband, who she’d met while at Berkeley, moved to the East Coast, where she taught physics at Smith College in Massachusetts and then at Princeton University in New Jersey. She was the first female faculty member in the latter’s physics department. By 1944, Wu moved on to work at Columbia University in New York, and that was when she joined the Manhattan Project—for which she helped develop a process for separating uranium into different isotopes by gaseous diffusion.

However, Wu’s main claim to scientific fame is the experiment that bears her name. She conducted the Wu experiment in 1956 after two of her colleagues, Tsung-Dao Lee and Chen Ning Yang, asked her to test their theory that the conservation of parity did not apply during beta decay. The results proved Lee and Yang’s theory and shattered the principle that identical nuclear particles acted alike—which had been universally accepted for 30 years. This earned the two (male) theoretical physicists the 1957 Nobel Prize in Physics. While Lee and Yang did mention Wu’s role in this discovery in their acceptance speech (she was the one who conducted the actual experiment, after all), like other female scientists at the time, her contributions went unacknowledged by the wider scientific community.

Wu even noted this gender disparity when she spoke at a symposium at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in October 1964. She asked the audience whether “the tiny atoms and nuclei, or the mathematical symbols, or the DNA molecules have any preference for either masculine or feminine treatment.”

She asked the audience whether “the tiny atoms and nuclei, or the mathematical symbols, or the DNA molecules have any preference for either masculine or feminine treatment.”

But this isn’t to say she was never honored—it just took some time. Wu’s awards and honors included The Franklin Institute’s John Price Wetherill Medal (1962), the Comstock Prize in Physics from the National Academy of Sciences (1964), and the National Medal of Science in Physics (1975). For the latter two, Wu was the first female to receive these honors. In addition, she was the first person ever to receive the Wolf Prize in Physics in 1978.

In 1965, Wu wrote and published a book called Beta Decay, which to this day, is still considered standard reading material in nuclear physics.

She remained working at Columbia until she retired in 1981. Wu devoted her retirement to educational programs in China and Taiwan, as well as the United States. And after her experiences as a woman in science, she was a huge advocate for girls in STEM fields.

Wu died in 1997 at the age of 84, from complications from a stroke. Her remains are buried on the grounds of Mingde High School (the successor of where she first attended school) and in 2002, a bronze statue of Wu was placed in the school’s courtyard to commemorate her life.

Published on May 31, 2024

Words by Samantha Pak

Samantha Pak (she/her) is an award-winning Cambodian American journalist from the Seattle area and assistant editor for JoySauce. She spends more time than she’ll admit shopping for books than actually reading them, and has made it her mission to show others how amazing Southeast Asian people are. Follow her on Twitter at @iam_sammi and on Instagram at @sammi.pak.

Art by Vivian Lai

Vivian Lai is an experienced L.A.-based graphic and UI designer with a proven track record of problem-solving for diverse clients across industries. She is highly skilled in design thinking, user experience, and visual communication and is committed to staying up-to-date with the latest design trends and techniques. Vivian has been recognized for her exceptional work with numerous industry awards.