History’s Hidden Heroes: Chien-Shiung Wu

047aWhen you think of The Manhattan Project, you probably think of white men such as Robert Oppenhiemer and Richard Feynman.  Chien-Shiung Wu was the only Chinese American scientist to work on the project.  Chien-Shiung Wu went on to design and carry out the experiments that proved that the Law of Parity, which involves forces at the quantum level (gravity, electromagnetism, and strong nuclear force) does not apply to weak nuclear force.

Wu was born in China in 1912.  Her father was an advocate for women’s education and he sent Wu to boarding school at the age of eleven.  Wu moved to the United States in 1936 to attend graduate school.  She intended to go to school in Michagan. but ended up studying at the University of California, Berekely, where she completed her Phd and married a fellow physicist, Luke Chia-Liu Yuan.


As part of the Manhattan Project, Wu developed a procedure that separated uranium into different isotopes.  One of the earlier Hidden Heroes entries in this blog was about the women of Oak Ridge Tennessee, also known as Atomic City.  That thing they spent the war doing?  It was the process developed by Wu.

After WWII, Wu was approached by two physicists, Tsung-Dao Lee and Chen-Ning Yang.  They theorized that the law of parity did not apply to weak nuclear forces but they couldn’t figure out how to test it.  Wu designed and carries out the experiment that proved that the law does not apply to weak nuclear forces.  while Lee and Yang were awarded a Nobel Prize, Wu’s was shamefully not included.

Wu’s later work included work on the molecular changes invoked in sickle cell anemia, publication of a book (Beta Decay), and an experiment that further experimental work in physics.

I am greatly indebted to Wikipedia for giving me something of a cheat sheet regarding Chien-Shiung’s, life, and I recommend this page for a list of her many accomplishments.  Seriously, the list of “Honors, Distinctions, and Awards” is epic.  Here’s a couple of highlights:

  • first female instructor in the Physics Department of Princeton University
  • first female President of the American Physical society
  • first living scientist to have an asteroid named after her

I’m also grateful to listverse.com for explaining the law of parity in short words that I could understand!