Chien-Shiung Wu Is the Manhattan Project Physicist Who Succeeded Where Fermi Failed

The history of science is full of forgotten heroes — people who made a difference, but missed out on proper recognition. Sometimes that's due to plain bad luck, but often it's for more insidious reasons. Chien-Shiung Wu falls into the latter camp. Despite working on the Manhattan Project and making important, Nobel-Prize-winning discoveries, it seems the public has all but forgotten her.

Many Claims to Fame

Chien-Shiung Wu was born in Shanghai and earned her Bachelor of Science in Nanking. In 1936, she headed to the United States to pursue a Ph.D. at Berkeley, and soon began blazing trails. Her career was storied, but two important achievements stand above the rest. In 1944, she joined the Manhattan Project, the famed research program conceived by Albert Einstein and Enrico Fermi to develop an atomic bomb. Wu actually made a breakthrough where Fermi himself had struggled—she developed a way to enrich uranium ore that helped create large quantities of fuel for the atomic bomb. That wasn't the last time she gave Fermi a helping hand. She also was responsible for the first confirmation of his theory of beta decay, where a neutron or proton changes into the other and creates a different element.

Her other big claim to fame had even less fame attached. Two male physicists, Tsung-Dao Lee and Chen Ning Yang, asked her to help them disprove the law of parity, or the rule in quantum mechanics that said that two physical systems are mirror images that behave in identical ways. Wu did experiments with cobalt-60, a radioactive form of cobalt, that successfully disproved the law. Despite this, she never received credit for her contribution: Yang and Lee won a Nobel Prize for overturning the law of parity in 1957, with no mention of Wu. Wu didn't stay quiet about this snub. In 1964, she spoke at an MIT symposium about women in science where she famously said, "I wonder whether the tiny atoms and nuclei, or the mathematical symbols, or the DNA molecules have any preference for either masculine or feminine treatment." Later in the speech, she got slightly more biting: "The West is ahead of China in science and technology, but not necessarily in the effective utilization of human talents."

A Life of Firsts

Wu was the first woman to receive a Doctorate of Science from Princeton University, the school's first female instructor, the seventh woman ever to be elected to the National Academy of Sciences, the first woman to serve as president of the American Physical Society, and the first living scientist to have an asteroid named after her. In 1995, along with two other scientists, Tsung-Dao Lee and Chen Ning Yang made amends for the Nobel Prize debacle by founding the Wu Chien-Shiung Education Foundation in Taiwan, which awards scholarships to aspiring young scientists. Until her death in 1997, Wu was an advocate for women and girls in STEM fields, and gave frequent talks promoting her cause to anyone who would listen.

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Written by Ashley Hamer March 1, 2017

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