Chien-Shiung Wu: The “First Lady of Physics”

Born in China in 1912, Wu immigrated to the United States and later became known as the “First Lady of Physics” for her pioneering work in nuclear physics. In this blog post, we’ll explore Wu’s remarkable life and career, and why high school students should pay attention to her contributions.


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Wu first became interested in physics as a student at National Central University in China, where she earned a degree in physics in 1934. She then traveled to the United States to pursue her graduate studies, earning both a Master’s and a Ph.D. in physics from the University of California, Berkeley, in the early 1940s. It was at Berkeley that Wu began her groundbreaking work in nuclear physics and radioactivity. Wu’s early research revealed that radioactive decay violated the law of parity, a fundamental principle in physics that states that physical processes should be the same if viewed in a mirror image. This discovery eventually earned Wu the National Medal of Science, the highest scientific honor in the United States.


Wu’s most significant contribution to physics, however, came during World War II, when she worked on the Manhattan Project as a member of the top-secret team that developed the atomic bomb. Wu’s role was to help separate uranium isotopes, a vital step in creating the bomb’s explosive power. After the war, Wu continued her research, becoming the first female physics professor at Princeton University in 1958. She also continued to break new ground in nuclear physics, conducting experiments that led to the discovery of new isotopes and the confirmation of the relationship between the weak nuclear force and beta decay.


Despite her many accomplishments, Wu faced significant discrimination as a woman and a person of color throughout her career. She was denied tenure at Columbia University in the 1940s, for example, and was widely criticized for taking a hiatus from her research to raise a family. Nevertheless, Wu persisted, and her work has been instrumental in shaping our understanding of fundamental physics concepts to this day.