March research updates

Thank you to everyone, for such thoughtful and warm and inspiring feedback yesterday.

Since my last post, it has become more and more clear that this semester’s writing will center on science content rather than historical/cultural context; it’s simply more accessible during the pandemic. There are loads of archives with historical and cultural information, which I’m excited to engage with once the world opens… but for now they remain locked behind sturdy pandemic doors.

The most important of these is the C.S. Wu archive, held at Columbia University’s RBML. I’ve learned Columbia’s libraries – including the RBML – are closed to all but Columbia affiliates. The archivist recommended hiring a Columbia-based research assistant to help identify what’s in select folders and to convey that info to me, all of which seems a blend of super helpful and super expensive, requiring a budget that I don’t yet have. On the upside, I’ve been able to arrange for a small selection of digital copies from the archive – a few hundred pages out of thousands of pages in 9+ linear feet of boxes. Step by step.

Catherine, if you have any ideas or suggestions on the Columbia front, I would warmly welcome them.

I also got helpful tips about 5 NYU databases through their East Asian Studies Library, each of which might point to resources with great context and insight about the historical and cultural setting of Wu’s childhood. Here again, delay is the name of the game; even the databases are closed to all but NYU affiliates for the duration of the pandemic. But at least I know where to start when the firewalls come down.

So, in the meantime, I’m focusing in on developing a sound and trying out language that pulls together the oddities of quantum physics in a poetically accessible voice for lay readership.  It’s fun, and it’s right in the center of my interests – even though I still feel concerned about dawdling, and feel some pressure to move beyond the subjects I already love to reflect and daydream about. Hopefully, it will be just as inspiring when I get to start expanding my expertise.

I listened to the Siri Hustvedt interview that Jason pointed me to (thank you, Jason!) and also  had a great time with a book called What is Real last month; it explores the weirder angles of quantum mechanics with inspiringly accessible language.

Earlier in the semester, I also tried to make a connection with one of Wu’s former students, a physicist who worked with Wu at Columbia in the 50s and who later became a professor at Rutgers.  Unfortunately, she is not well, and also she’s quite elderly; she had to step back from our conversation about a month ago, before we had a chance to get very far. I’m hoping she makes a speedy and full recovery, for all the reasons, including hoping to have the chance to re-engage with her.

On a random tangent, I came across a documentary about a Shanghai movie star who was popular in China during the same era when Wu was growing up. It was exciting to see clips of the silent films she made. I have no clue (yet) whether Wu was into movies, or if she would have known about this movie star’s short, tabloid life, but it was still very cool to see footage suggesting what Shanghai might have looked like in the same decades when Wu was a teen and a young adult, living in a small town on the outskirts of that city.

Meanwhile, on the more academic/historical side of things, I got access to some archival materials that showcase Wu’s quiet leadership in affirmative action activism among faculty in the early 1970s! She was a diplomatic and subtle bad-ass. I’m super excited to explore and share this part of her story as well.

Last but not least, I have access to contact information for Wu’s son and her granddaughter. When I read about her taking the university faculty by storm, challenging them for underrepresentation and under-paying women science faculty, all I kept thinking was, “OMG, I have to call her granddaughter and tell her what I found!”  Then I remembered, “whoops, I don’t know her granddaughter yet!”  I’m warming up to make contact, working on pulling together content that may make an initial introduction to family members smooth. Please wish me good luck!

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2 thoughts on “March research updates

  1. Catherine LaSota

    Hi, Michelle!
    I’m sorry I had to miss your in-class workshop and that I’m just now seeing your post here. I’m trying to think of how I might help you gain entry with the Columbia RBML. I’m not on campus myself these days, working remotely completely, or I’d see if I could just slip in there myself to take some photos for you! If there is a particular department on campus that you think might have students who would be interested in such research, especially within Arts & Sciences departments, I do know a lot of the administration in those departments and could maybe help you get word out to their students to see if someone would be interested in helping out. Let me know!

  2. Jason Tougaw

    The material about Wu’s university activism in the 70s sounds like a huge find. To me that sounds like a chapter. I wonder if there is a way to do something where you contrast the heady philosophical ideas raised by physics with the politics and bureaucracies of the university–and locate her in relation to both. I’m really thinking out loud her, but it strikes as a way that you might bring the various pieces you’re working with together and strike a tone that encompasses all of them.


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