Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Chien-Shiung Wu - courageous hero and brilliant scientist

Who better to celebrate on the last day of Asian-American Pacific Islander Heritage month than Chien-Shiung Wu (May 31, 1912 – February 16, 1997), a Chinese-American experimental physicist who made significant contributions in the field of nuclear physics. She was born in a small town in China at a time when girls weren't sent to school, and yet she spent her entire life thinking about and solving complex problems in physics. Because of her absolute dedication to performing nearly perfect experiments and her reputation as a thorough and brilliant experimentalist, she quickly became known as the "Chinese Madame Curie," the "Queen of Nuclear Research," and the "First Lady of Physics."

She was set on her path to physics from an early age. Much of her love of learning and the study of physics, and her unrelenting determination, came from her father, who railed against the tradition in their region that prevented girls from attending school. In fact, he started his own school just so he could make sure girls in his area could attend. When she'd grown past what she could learn at her father's school, she was sent to a boarding school where she developed her life-long passion for mathematics, science, and especially physics. When she worried about being away from her family for so long at such a young age, her father told her to "Ignore the obstacles. Just put your head down and keep walking forward." Perhaps he knew she was destined for greatness when they named her Chien-Shiung, a name she translated as "Courageous Hero."
"I have always felt that in physics, and probably in other endeavors, too, you must have total commitment. It is not just a job, it is a way of life."
She didn't intend to move to the United States permanently.
Instead, she had planned a short tour before enrolling in the Ph.D. program at the University of Michigan. When she first arrived in San Francisco in 1936, she took a trip to Berkeley where she met pioneering American nuclear scientist and winner Ernest Lawrence, who was working on building the first cyclotron (for which he won a Nobel Prize in 1939), and that changed everything. She stayed at Berkeley for two years, working as a research assistant, and creating a name for herself as a brilliant experimental physicist.
"These were moments of exhilaration and ecstasy! A glimpse of this wonder can be the reward of a lifetime. Could it be that excitement and ennobling feelings like these have kept us scientists marching forward forever?"
Even as a research assistant she was provide valuable insight for well-established physicists.
Enrico Fermi, who would go on to create the world's first nuclear reactor, and his team was working on producing a large-scale, self-sustaining plutonium chain reaction, but their reactions would sputter out without explanation after running for a few hours. They were stumped, until someone suggested they ask Chien-Shiung Wu, who looked at their research notes and was able to determine that it was a problem with a buildup of xenon, which would trap the stray neutrons needed to keep the reaction going.
“You come in order to work and to find your way. You must work very hard at the beginning. It is hard to push the door open and to get inside a subject. But once you understand it, it is very interesting.”
She was one of the hundreds of female scientists working on the Manhattan Project.
She left Berkeley after getting married to fellow physicist Luke Yuan when he was offered a job at Princeton. At first, she took a job teaching young women at Smith College, but that position didn't offer any lab time, which she missed dearly. Since it was the early years of World War II, many positions were left empty at colleges around the country, and she was able to find an opening at Princeton. In fact, she was the first female professor there. That position led to her joining the Substitute Alloy Materials (SAM) Laboratories at Columbia University in 1944 as part of their work to support the Manhattan Project's efforts to beat the Germans in the race to build the world's first nuclear bomb. She commuted between Princeton and Columbia for the rest of the war.
"These are moments of exaltation and ecstasy. A glimpse of this wonder can be the reward of a lifetime."
After the war, she returned to her lab, and worked on solving problems for other physicists.
She found a critical flaw in experiments being performed to prove Fermi's Interaction -- Enrico Fermi's theory explaining the process of radioactive decay in which a beta ray (fast energetic electron or positron), and a neutrino are emitted from an atomic nucleus. Until she stepped in, no one had been able to duplicate anyone else's research findings, and thus the theory was still unproven. In her research into their methods she was able to deduce that the problem was a result of each experiment was using radiation sources of different thicknesses. She was able to control the thickness of her radiation sources, and prove once and for all that Fermi's theory was correct after all.
"Science is not static but is dynamic and ever-improving. It is the courage to doubt what has long been believed and the incessant search for verification and proof that pushes the wheels of science forward."
After that success, she barely paused before going and disproving a fundamental "law" of nature.
For nearly 40 years, physicists had treated the idea of conservation of parity as an absolute law, akin to the law of gravity. Conservation of parity held that when something happens in nature, it isn't random whether it happens in one direction or another -- left or right, so to speak -- but in both directions equally. When one of her colleagues suggested it might not be true, she took it upon herself to test it. By now she was working at Columbia full time, but in order to complete this experiment she had to travel back and forth between New York and Washington, D.C., where she worked with the Low Temperature Group of the US National Bureau of Standards. Her experiment required working with material at near zero Kelvin, the point at which all atomic movement ceases. She and her team worked tirelessly, carefully recording the decay of Cobalt-60 and tracking the gamma rays emitted to see whether they went left or right. If conservation of parity were true, there would be exactly the same number on each side. Two weeks later, they were able to conclusively report that conservation of parity was incorrect when they could prove that there were definitely more gamma rays emitted on one side than on the other.
"I sincerely doubt that any open-minded person really believes in the faulty notion that women have no intellectual capacity for science and technology."
She was a fierce advocate for women in science and engineering.
After she finally retired from the lab -- after even more impressive research -- she spent her time traveling the world to talk about her successes and about her experiences as a woman in a male-dominated field. She attended a symposium at MIT in 1964 to discuss issues around equality -- American Women in Science and Engineering -- where she joined other notable STEM women to speak to students from around the world, professors, deans and even high school guidance counselors.

What an amazing scientist and strong woman! She's certainly a Self-Rescuing Princess Society role model, for her remarkable work in the field of physics, plus her dedication to improving the representation of women in STEM fields back in the 1960s and 70s. And there was still so much more interesting things about her I want to share with you. Stay tuned!

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For further reading:

Scientific American article "Channeling Ada Lovelace: Chien-Shiung Wu, Courageous Hero of Physics"

Nobel Prize Women in Science: Their Lives, Struggles, and Momentous Discoveries, by Sharon Bertsch McGrayne (Amazon / Library)

A to Z of Women in Science and Math, by Lisa Yount (Amazon / Library)

Notable American Women: A Biographical Dictionary, Volume 5: Completing the Twentieth Century, edited by Susan Ware and Stacy Braukman (Amazon / Library)

The Madame Curie Complex: The Hidden History of Women in Science, by Julie Des Jardins (Amazon / Library)

Women of Science: Righting the Record, Edited by G. Kass-Simon and Patricia Farnes (Amazon / Library)

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