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Honoring a First Lady

Chien-Shiung Wu – USPS

Imagine that you devise an experiment that has results so revolutionary that the most respected scientists in your field exclaim, “That’s total nonsense!” Repeating the experiment shows that you are correct and what you have shown is so incredible that the experiment is named after you – the Wu Experiment. Two scientists, seeking to disprove a widely accepted law of physics, Parity Law, had a theory that would disprove that law. They came to you for assistance with experiments and what you came up with was referred to as the “solution to the number-one riddle of atomic and nuclear physics”. Everyone knows that what you did was revolutionary because the two scientists received the Nobel Prize in Physics. The surprise, to many, is that, apart from a single mention, almost in passing, in the ceremony’s speech, you get nothing. The consensus is that you were ignored and left out because you are a woman. It is such a big deal to those who were outraged by the perceived snub that, 21 years later, you receive the inaugural Wolf Prize in Physics, a prestigious prize that states that it is awarded to “scientists for their achievements for the benefit of mankind and brotherly relations among peoples, regardless of nationality, race, color, religion, sex or political views.”

Dr. Chien-Shiung Wu, The First Lady of Physics, was born in China and had, what sounds like pretty awesome parents. At a time where this was not a widely held view, her parents believed so strongly that girls should get an education, that her father founded a school for them. With this kind of support, it is hardly surprising that Chien-Shiung Wu went on to graduate, at the top of her class, with a degree in physics. Her mentor, a female professor named Jing-Wei Gu, encouraged her to continue her education and, in 1936, Madame Wu (as she was often called) emigrated to America, where she would become a citizen in 1952. In 1940 she earned a PhD in physics from the University of California, Berkeley. Even though she had a doctorate and Nobel-prize winning mentors, Chien-Shiung Wu found that racism and sexism were much stronger than her qualifications. With World War II, anti-Asian sentiments were stronger than ever and ultimately, Chien-Shiung Wu moved, with her husband, to the east coast where she first taught at Smith College and then moved on to Princeton University, becoming the first woman hired as a faculty member by Princeton’s physics department. She left Princeton in 1944, to work on the Manhattan Project at Columbia University. Dr. Wu stayed at Columbia University until she retired and it was while she was there that her groundbreaking Wu Experiment helped Drs. Tsung-Dao Lee and Chen Ning Yang win the Nobel Prize.

Dr. Chien-Shiung Wu was no stranger to being a pioneer becoming, among other things, the first female president of the American Physical Society and the first living scientist to have an asteroid named after her: Asteroid 2752 Wu Chien-Shiung. As she blazed her trails and opened doors, Dr. Wu made sure that the door was held open and she worked hard to encourage other women. After she retired, she continued to work tirelessly in education programs aimed at increasing the number of girls and women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (most popularly referred to as STEM). I am guessing that her passion was to build a future where women were not held back, were not overlooked, and were always recognized.

On February 11, 2021, the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, the United States Postal Service released a commemorative stamp in honor of Dr. Chien-Shiung Wu and her amazing achievements and contributions not only to science but also to championing women and girls in science. This is a fitting tribute to a woman who, in advocating for women to pursue careers in science voiced a sentiment I can get fully behind, “There is only one thing worse than coming home from the lab to a sink full of dirty dishes, and that is not going to the lab at all!