Chien-Shiung Wu was born in Eastern China in 1912, at a time when girls were not expected to attend school. But Wu’s parents firmly believed in rights for women, and so they started their own girls’ school with their daughter as a pupil.
And so Wu became one of first girls her age to get a formal education in China. She could not have been a more accomplished student, going on to university where she graduated top of the class.
Wu wanted to specialise in physics, but China didn’t have a graduate programme, so she made the long and arduous sea voyage to the USA. Here she enrolled at the University of California: a bustling hub of atomic research.
Here Wu became an expert in atomic physics and an authority on nuclear fission: the process involved in spitting the atom. Thanks to her prowess, she was recruited to work on the Manhattan Project during WW2.
After the war, Wu continued in atomic research. She used her expertise in beta decay to prove how atoms can eject particles in order to morph into different elements.
In 1956, Wu made the greatest discovery of her career, exploiting atomic physics to disprove an accepted law of nature. The ‘Law of Conservation of Parity’ suggested that, on a fundamental level, nature favours neither left nor right, but is symmetrical. But Wu showed that atomic decay causes particles to be emitted in an unsystematic and non-symmetrical way, thus discrediting the accepted theory.
Wu didn’t stop there: she went on to study all manner of cutting-edge things, from ‘exotic’ atoms to the physics of sickle cell anaemia. Her achievements earned her numerous nicknames, including: ‘the First Lady of Physics’ and ‘the Queen of Nuclear Research’. All her life, Wu pushed at the boundaries, advancing knowledge and exploring new and exciting frontiers.
Chien-Shiung Wu explored new frontiers