Chien-Shiung Wu

I’m at the beginning of my research on a potential biography of Chien-Shiung Wu, a Chinese-American physicist.  In 1957, the Nobel Committee bypassed Wu for the Nobel Prize, choosing instead to honor two men whose theory she had experimentally proven.

The background story is that Wu advised a junior colleague in 1956 about a weird, new theory that he and his physics partner had been knocking around. She led the world’s first experiment to answer their questions, and what she found was so wildly unexpected that within a day of her published results, the director of Columbia’s Physics Department called a press conference – an unprecedented move within the physics community.

He also finally promoted Wu to the rank of full professor in recognition of her extraordinary accomplishment. That same year, for the same discovery, C.N. Yang and T.D. Lee received the Nobel Prize.

The physics theory that Wu tested and disproved in 1957 was called the principle of parity.

One of the things that fascinates me about physics stories is how eagerly they turn into metaphors. In 2018, 1,600 researchers invoked Wu’s name in an open letter to CERN about discrimination and underrepresentation within the sciences, in part based on her omission from the parity-related prize.

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about where I might experiment with more personal narrative about my writing and research process, and how to move outside of a conventional biographical frame in telling Wu’s story. I’m not 100% sure yet, but I wonder if this is something I might want to explore in this class.

At this step of my research, I’m also very interested in learning much more about the culture and history of Wu’s family, and especially her father’s history. Wu was born in 1912, which is the same year that China nationalized. Her father was a revolutionary and a feminist, and when she was born he opened the region’s first school for girls. He also gave her a “boy’s” name, composed of two Chinese characters that translate as “Strong Hero.”

And I’m trying to absorb as much as I can about particle physics. Which is a little bit bananas, because I’m not a physicist.

There’s so much to learn about and uncover, and I’m very eager for any suggestions about how and where to search for historical records about Wu’s father and the small village outside Shanghai where she was born, called Liu He.

One serious challenge is the fact that I don’t speak Chinese.

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1 thought on “Chien-Shiung Wu

  1. Jason Tougaw

    This sounds like a great project. I’d say some of what you’ve written here could go straight into the piece you’re writing.

    I’m really curious about the principle of parity! I can imagine this in chapters already: the Nobel situation, the open letter, Wu’s research before and after her discovery, Wu’s father, physics and metaphor, the underrepresenation of women in science, and so much more. I’d say for this course, choose a small slice and really focus on that. You’ll see where it takes you.

    If others have written about Wu, maybe get in touch with some of them to talk about research leads. I could also imagine a version of this that’s a collaboration, perhaps with a translator or an expert on Chinese history, maybe specifically on science or feminism in China, or the region Wu is from.

    Siri Hustvedt has started writing about physics some. You might check out this interview: There’s a little bit about physics in her essay collection Living, Thinking, Looking. I’m not sure if she’s published standalone pieces on physics more recently.


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