Nov 27, 2012
Inside Story: C S Wu – First Lady of physics research
Chien-Shiung Wu is the subject of a new biography that marks her centenary. The author talks about how the book came about.
It has been many years since the first idea of writing this biography occurred to me. During this period, I have talked to many people about Chien-Shiung Wu: some knew her a little, most had only vague understandings; some asked me why I should write a biography of Wu, and some even asked who Wu was!
In 1956, Wu was the first to perform a rather difficult and precise experiment, and confirmed the hypothesis [of parity violation] proposed by C N Yang and T D Lee. Yang and Lee became the first two Chinese Nobel laureates. Although Wu did not share the prize – to the surprise of many – she was acknowledged as one of the most distinguished experimental physicists in the world.
Wu went to the US in 1936. By the time she earned a PhD in 1940, her achievements and insights in research had already received the highest admiration from many professors at the University of California, Berkeley, such as the great American scientists Robert Oppenheimer and Ernest Lawrence. As a result, she was invited as a non-citizen of the US to participate in the top-secret "Manhattan Project", working on atomic bombs, and made critical contributions to the project.
Because of her significant achievements and her profound influences in physics, Wu was often called "the Chinese Madame Curie", "the First Lady of Physics Research" and the "Queen of Nuclear Research". In 1975, she broke the white-male-president tradition and became the first female president of American Physics Society.
Wu visited Taiwan on the invitation of Academia Sinica in 1983, after an absence of 18 years. I met her for the first time as a science reporter for the Reading Times, which served as the beginning of the adventure of writing her biography. She had retired from Columbia University in 1980 after 36 years. As professor emeritus, her major research activities slowed down gradually. She was in her 70s – a good time for reflection.
I received much encouragement when planning this biography, particularly from C N Yang, who mentioned that a distinguished scientist such as Wu deserves to have a good biography. I discussed this proposal with Wu two years later. Always matter-of-fact, modest and never seeking fame, she declined. Only after many verbal and written persuasions, and the argument put forward by Luke Yuan [her husband] that her biography would help in inspiring Chinese youth in addition to publicizing her achievements, was she finally convinced.
With the inspiration of Yang, I realized the importance of using an objective narrative in writing this book. As a result, I did not rely only on her own account but would interview her colleagues, students, friends, relatives and even competitors, and make reference to many documents and literature. This turned out to be a time-consuming undertaking.
I started the official interviews with Wu in New York in September of 1989. They were unexpectedly rough. I had imagined a rather romantic setting, with Wu vividly recounting her life and events. With the tape recorder turning and my pen moving, the Sun would be setting slowly. But this almost never happened in the tens of interviews in more than a year!
Wu never wrote a diary. While wholeheartedly immersed in her scientific experiments in the past years, she never considered recording this process for the world, and therefore had no memory of many events. In addition, she was down-to-earth and of few words. The medicine that was lowering her blood pressure also affected her memory. The many hours of interviews and reminiscences were not enough to reconstruct her past.
I flew more than 30,000 miles, all over the world, to interview more than 50 individuals in China, Hong Kong, Europe, the US and Canada. The tape recording of tens of hours was followed by telephones calls to confirm details.
I used objective narrative as much as possible, avoiding subjective opinion or novel-style descriptions. Basically, this book conforms to the current trend in biographic writing: using a style closer to news reporting. In a way, its writing could be regarded as an attempt to test the idea that "news serves as a footnote of history".
Chien-Shiung Wu was born on 31 May 1912 in Liuhe, near Shanghai. In 1957, Wu and her colleagues published their historic paper, "Experimental test of parity conservation in beta decay", which established for the first time the non-conservation of parity. The study of nuclear beta decay was a central focus of Wu’s research. In 1949 and 1950, through a series of beautiful experiments, Wu measured the allowed and forbidden beta spectra, corrected many previous mistakes and firmly established Fermi’s theory. Almost single-handedly she cleared up the confusion in beta decay that had existed for one and a half decades. (CERN Courier April 1997 p21.)
About the author
Tsai-Chien Chiang, author of Madame Chien-Shiung Wu: The First Lady of Physics Research (translated by Tang-Fong Wong, World Scientific 2012). This article is extracted with permission from the September 2012 issue of Asia Pacific Physics Newsletter, which also includes an article on Chien-Shiung Wu’s scientific achievements. See www.worldscientific.com/toc/appn/01/02