- Known as the “First Lady of Physics,” Chien Shung Wu broke racial and gender barriers to play a major role in the Manhattan project.
- She was even referred to as “Jie Jie” or older sister by Oppenheimer himself.
With the Barbenheimer trend at fever pitch, Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer has brought the controversial physicist back into the cultural forefront. Played by the brilliant Cillian Murphy, the film shows how Dr. Oppenheimer assembled some of the world’s greatest minds to form the Manhattan Project. This government program would create the atomic bomb which ended World War II and forever change the world.
High school students today may learn about the scientists featured like Oppenheimer, Einstein, or Heisenberg. But an equally important but unsung hero in the Manhattan Project was Chinese physicist Chien Shung Wu. Known as the “First Lady of Physics,” her work forever transformed nuclear science despite the racial and gender discrimination against her. When asked about leading physicians in America, Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer was quoted as saying, “Go invite Ms. Wu — she knows everything about the absorption cross section of neutrons.”
But who is Ms. Wu?
Born in 1912 near Shanghai, Chieng Shung Wu had the fortune of having two forward-thinking parents. Her father was an engineer and activist, who helped set up the first school of girls in their home province. Ms.Wu excelled in mathematics and science at an early age, eventually enrolling in National Central University and then the prestigious Zhejiang University in Hangzhou. There, she transferred into the university’s greenhorn Physics department and received an opportunity to continue her graduate studies in the United States.
In the year 1936, Ms.Wu sailed to America to study in Berkeley. A year after, Japan would declare war on China. China would face war with Japan, civil war between Nationalists and Communists, political turmoil, famine, and hardships for the next decades. From then on, Chien Shung Wu herself would lose contact with family and homeland until the 1970’s, and would never see her parents again.
Overcoming Barriers as an Asian Woman in pre-war United State
Sexism had been a perennial problem for Ms. Wu back in China, but in her newfound home she had to overcome racial discrimination. Just ten years prior, the US passed draconian anti-immigration laws against Asians as they were seen as barbaric, untrustworthy, and racially inferior. Furthermore, colleges like her first choice University of Michigan banned female students from entering through their front exit.
Chien Shung Wu attained success against staunch racial and gender discrimination, so much so that she became the “belle of Berkeley.” Her work on the burgeoning field of nuclear fission garnered her genuine respect among her colleagues, so much so that she would eventually receive “rockstar treatment” by fellow students and scientists. According to one physicist, “When she walked on campus, she was often followed by a swarm of admirers, like a queen.”
The Manhattan Project
Despite this, Chien Shung Wu was still held back from furthering her career due to barriers against women of color. It was only until the outbreak of World War II when she became one of Princeton University’s first female lecturers. Ms.Wu’s body of work and reputation as a groundbreaking physicist led to her recruitment into the top-secret Manhattan Project. Physicist Enrico Fermi recommended her as she was brilliant both in physics theories and in the field of experimentation.
Ms.Wu would then move to the central research facility of the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, Nevada. She worked on a way to enrich uranium called gaseous diffusion, a necessary process still used today for both nuclear energy and nuclear weapons. In fact, Ms.Wu’s specific process is so effective that details of her technique are still largely classified by the US government. During her years there, she earned the respect of fellow physicists. According to Ms.Wu’s granddaughter, she would affectionately call Dr.Oppenheimer “Oppie.” The eminent physicist in turn called her “Jie Jie” or older sister in Chinese.
Breaking the Laws of Physics
In 1945, the Manhattan Project culminated in the dropping of an atomic bomb on China’s former enemy, Japan. This act effectively ended not only World War II but also Japan’s decades long aggression against China. Given her experience with nuclear weapons, she reportedly advised Chiang Kai Shiek against developing nukes in Taiwan. However, she was overall hopeful about humanity, saying “Do you think that people are so stupid and self-destructive?I have confidence in humankind. I believe we will one day live together peacefully.”
She would soon marry and move to the East Coast where she became a tenured professor in Columbia University. There, she continued to study and push the boundaries of physics. One of her most important breakthroughs occurred in 1957 when she discovered particles that could “break the laws of physics.” Her months-long experiments proved that such particles called K-Meson did not follow the previously held law of parity. This discovery radically changed mankind’s understanding of physics. But the Nobel Prize was not given to her but rather to the scientists who tested it further. Nevertheless, Chien Shiung Wu continued to fight for better pay and opportunities for women working in the sciences.
Ms.Chien Shung Wu passed away quietly in the year 1997, but her legacy still lives on. In her lifetime, she won the National Medal of Science in 1975, the first Wolf Prize in Physics in 1978, and Columbia’s Pupin Medal in 1991. Her work in the field of physics still largely shapes that field today.
A century after her birth, Ms.Wu now has a statue of her displayed in her home village near Shanghai, China. She might have been forgotten once, but today her work and life stands as a reminder of the achievements that women and Asians have made.