By Elaine Dunn, March 2021
March 8 is International Women’s Day. Since 1911, women the world over have been honored for their achievements, be it in the cultural, economic, educational, historical, political or social fields on this day.
March 8 is also a day for women from all backgrounds to come together to break down barriers for gender parity and women’s rights.
It is fitting, then, for China Insight to celebrate two Chinese women physicists who have excelled in their respective fields. Neither of these women are household names, but they both made significant contributions to the world of physics. Although coincidentally both share the same last name of Wu, they are not related.
On Feb. 11, the U.S. Postal Service released a stamp featuring the late Chinese American nuclear physicist Wu Chien-Shiung (吳健雄).
"During a career that spanned more than 40 years in a field dominated by men, she established herself as the authority on conducting precise and accurate research to test fundamental theories of physics," the Postal Service said in a November 2020 release.
According to her obituary in The New York Times, Wu was born in a town north of Shanghai in Jiangsu Province in 1912. At 11, she attended a boarding school for girls after completing elementary school. From 1930 to 1934, she attended National Central University in Nanjing and put in the obligatory year of teaching at a public school after graduation. Wu first majored in mathematics, then switched to physics. Two years after graduation, she enrolled in the Zhejiang University for graduate work, where one of her professors encouraged her to go abroad.
She emigrated to the U.S. in 1936. She was the first Pupin Professor of Physics at Columbia University in 1973, the first woman to be elected president of the American Physical Society, winner of the Cyrus B. Comstock Award of the National Academy of Sciences, and the first woman to receive an honorary doctorate in science from Princeton University. She died of a stroke in 1997 at age 84.
According to the National Park Service (NPS), which also paid tribute to Wu’s participation in the Manhattan Project as part of the National Historic Park site, Wu was known for a historic experiment that overturned what was then considered a fundamental law of nature: the law of symmetry. The experiment proved essential to research that later won her two male colleagues the Nobel Prize in 1957. Wu was not listed as a winner. However, she was awarded the inaugural Wolf Prize in Physics in 1978.
"Few people … call to mind the name Chien-Shiung Wu. But without the physicist, the Manhattan Project and the weapons it created might have failed, perhaps prolonging World War II into 1946 and beyond," said an article in Time magazine.
Considered one of the most influential nuclear physicists of the 20th century, Wu made it on Time Magazine’s 100 Women of the Year century list in March 2020.
Wu’s granddaughter Jada Yuan said the family “was grateful for the honor … it's great that an agency like the post office has decided to celebrate her and Asian American culture in a positive way," Yuan told NBC News.
Yuan, a U.S. newspaper reporter, was 19 when Wu died. She said she only knew her grandmother post-retirement and not as a renowned scientist.
"Over the years, I've noticed her getting recognized more and more, as there is a movement to recognize women whose accomplishments were not recognized in their lifetime, especially with the growing enthusiasm for women in science," she said.
"I think my grandma would be happy to be seen in this manner and for young girls to see this stamp and see something of themselves in it, whether it's women interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), Asian American women and also Chinese immigrants," Yuan said. She added her grandmother “would have been happy to be remembered this way.”
The stamp is designed by Ethel Kessler and features original art by the Asian artist Kam Mak. A virtual dedication ceremony was streamed from the USPS Faccebook and Twitter pages, according to the USPS.
For 2020, in celebration of International Women’s Day (March 8), Time Magazine created 89 covers to highlight a century’s worth of glass-ceiling-breaking women.
Wu Chien-Shiung at Columbia University in 1958.
Wu Sau Lan
Wu Sau Lan (吳秀蘭) is a woman who, by many accounts, that had the Nobel committee awarded the physics prize to a woman since 1963, she would have been the recipient.
Wu is currently the Enrico Fermi Distinguished Professor of Physics at the University of Wisconsin and a visiting scientist at CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research), where she led her team to the discovery of evidence for the Higgs boson in July 2012.
Her name has appeared on more than 1,000 papers in high-energy physics. She had spent decades working to establish the Standard Model of particle physics, and she had made three major discoveries: the J/psi particle (1974), the gluon (1979), Higgs boson (2012).
Asked by Quanta Magazine in 2018 why there was no prize awarded for the discovery of the gluon (the force-carrying particle that “acts as the exchange particle for the strong force between quarks,” per Wikipedia) when the researchers who discovered the W and Z bosons that came a few years later won the Nobel Prize, Wu good-naturedly said, “You are going to have to ask the Nobel committee that.”
Wu said she was inspired to major in physics after reading a biography of Marie Curie. She was only a second- or third-year assistant professor during the gluon experiment, and the youngest on the team of four. However, she understood to be successful, one had to be fast and one had to be the first. So she volunteered to do all the calculations “to make sure that as soon as a new collider at DESY [the German Electron Synchrotron] turned on in Hamburg, we could see the gluon and recognize its signal of three jets of particles.”
Despite being born to a wealthy businessman in Hong Kong during World War II, Wu grew up in poverty as the father abandoned her, her mother (his sixth concubine) and Wu’s younger brother when Wu was still a child. After secondary school (high school) in Hong Kong, she received a full scholarship to Vassar College in 1960 and arrived on campus with $40 to her name. She graduated from Vassar summa cum laude in three years! Finding a graduate program in physics was a struggle: Princeton only admitted wives of male faculty. Caltech rejected her on grounds it had no dorms for women and that it only selected “exceptional” women. Fortunately, other institutions were more welcoming. She shoes Harvard’s Ph.D. program and became the only woman accepted in her area of study that year.
After graduating from Harvard in 1970, she was offered a research associate position by MIT where, in 1974, she and her team discovered a fourth type of quark called the “charm quark,” which led to the development of the Standard Model of particle physics.
In 1977, she was hired by the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus as an assistant professor. Approxmately two years on the faculty, she led her team to discover the gluon, for which she was awarded the European Physical Society Prize for High Energy Physics in 1995. However, in the ‘70s, hen the young researcher tried to join projects in electron positron collisions and was truned down. So she went to Germany where those experiments were taking place and, again, was snubbed by a “big” professor. Fortunately, she ran into the Norwegian elementary physicist Bjørn Wiik, who led a different experiment, and he accepted her. Wu considers him her mentor.
Does she think it’s gotten any easier for young women in physics these days? Yes. “There is a trend among funding agencies and institutions to encourage younger women, which I think is great.” However, in her field, experimental high-energy physics, it is still “very hard for women.” These days, departments look good if they “support women.” She said she and her husband (a theoretical physics professor at Harvard) lived apart for more than 10 years, except during summers. They gave up having children because she was afraid of losing tenure and grants should she become pregnant. In addition, the traveling involved in her field is detrimental to family life.
She poignantly shared how she persevered in her field in an interview with fellow physicist Zosia Krusburg:
“You have to accept the fact that people think you are less competent … I encountered that mentality a lot early on. If you’re a woman, and there’s something not quite fair and you speak up, people get upset. When I became successful, people would point to me and say that I am an aggressive person. People have called me Dragon Lady. I’m not like that, but people make a picture of you. In the end, you have to be immune to this kind of criticism. What they don’t see is that I’m successful because I try very hard. I work for it, totally devote myself, my life, to my job.”
Wu has cetainly come a long ways since arriving at Vassar. She uses the world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator to search for the smallest building blocks of the universe. She’s advised scores of UW-Madison graduate students and postdoctoral researchers.
Wu Sau Lan at CERN, the laboratory near Geneva that houses the Large Hadron Collider. The mural depicts the detector she and her collaborators used to discover the Higgs boson.
While it is fitting to celebrate the outstanding achievements of these two physicists, here are plenty other women who also should be celebrated and honored. Closer to home, we have to bear in mind the sacrifices the women in our everyday lives have contributed to our own well-being. So, do celebrate the influential female figures in your lives as well as female family members who have made you whom you are today.