Herstories and How-to’s: Wu Chien Shiung

So you know that kid in your 3rd grade class that everyone, randomly decided would be always found to be no fun,  boring and in general Someone To Be Avoided? And you go along because you think ‘Sure- I’m told I shouldn’t like this person so yup, check. I’ll steer clear’ – but then years later, you meet and think “Man. This person is interesting…This person can be downright beautiful and mysterious…Why didn’t I notice this sooner”…?

That ‘person,’ for me, is MATH.

I won’t go too far into personal history here, other than to say that until very recently, Math was a dirty word that made me instantly angry and sleepy. Ask me to do long division and I will first be forced to show my work (including carrying remainders) and then I will take a Rage Nap.

Recently, though, I’ve been looking at Math a bit differently. The benefit of being an adult isn’t that you’re done with school, it’s being able to pick and choose what you want to study, skipping all the boring parts in between.

In honor of this (new to me) beautiful side of math, this month I wanted to share with you a woman who is sometimes referred to as ‘the First Lady of Physics’, Wu Chien-Shiung.


Wu Chien-Shiung was born in the town of Liuhe in Taicang, Jiangsu province, China in 1912. Her father founded an elementary school for girls, the Ming De school, which Wu attended. At home her father, to whom she was very close, continued to nurture her curiosity through encouraging her to pursue her interests and filling their home with newspapers, magazines and books. (Note: this is not to diminish her achievements by saying “oh, look she was helped by this MAAAAN, but rather to point to the power we all have to make an impact on a young child.  < /educatorsoapbox >)

Her high school, undergraduate and graduate studies took her across China, through Berkley and eventually to the East coast. Along the way Wu engaged in bouts of quiet political activism and a general WINNING streak. By her early 30’s she was a professor at Smith College, working/researching at Princeton and her work in nuclear fission attracted the interest of a little organization called the United States Government. This interest led to an invitation to work on the Manhattan Project at Columbia University in New York. I’ll be the first to admit extreme ambivalence in regards to the Manhattan Project and the ‘fallout’ (PUN INTENTED) from the research. Regardless of how you feel about the work, however, it’s worth noting that at the time the Manhattan Project was considered by many to be the pinnacle of Manly MidCentury Science Dreamz. To be a woman working in the top tiers of scientists (and to be a woman who was invited no less) is something worth cheering for.

also, look at that boss-level confidence. via.

After World War II, Wu Chien-Shiung remained at Columbia, where she continued to teach, research and generally kick ass. In 1957, she and two colleagues disproved “The Principal of Conservation of Parity,” which was up until then thought to be a “law” of nature. (To read more about what this meant/how they disproved it, as well as her other noteworthy work with ‘beta-decay,’ check out the Wikipedia article. Then, if you understand it, explain it to me so I can fall more in love with her wonderful brain.) Because the World of Science in 1957 was even more full of Boy-Clubean Duche-Baggery than it is today, both of Wu’s (male) colleagues won the 1957 Nobel Prize in Physics. She did not.

“I know, right?” via.

Despite not getting credit immediately for her parity work in 1957, Wu did go on to receive a plethora of awards and titles, including The first woman to receive an honorary Doctorate from Princeton, the National Medal of Science, and became the first living scientist to have an asteroid named after him or her. As she aged, Wu continued to research and to, in general, become even more badass. She spoke out publicly against human rights violations in China, unequal pay for women professionals, at gender discrimination at large.

“I wonder, whether the tiny atoms and nuclei or the mathematical symbols, or the DNA molecules have any preference for masculine or feminine treatment?” -Wu Chien-Shiung, addressing an audience at MIT. via.


How to Learn Things About Physics Over Your Summer Vacation
Without Totally Ruining Your Summer Vacation.

So, admittedly, there is nothing I can authentically teach you to do with regards to math or physics. As I mentioned before, I am a total numerical late-in-lifer and even now hold only the most tenuous grip on either subject. What I can do is point you to a few resources that are fun, FREE! and which you can peruse at your own pace. Hooray self-guided learning!

  • Only have 3 minutes to learn something? Check out Minute Physics on youtube. With animations, stick figures and simple language they explain everything from ‘What is AntiMatter” to “How far can Legolas see?”. (I imagine Minute Physics would be great for those times when parties devolve into sharing youtube videos…)
  • If you prefer, instead to gather your physics knowledge through hilarious web comics that also tie in pop culture, dinosaurs and the occasional pondering of Big Questions, check out xkcd, a long running, weekly webcomic written by a literal rocket-scientist, Randall Munroe.
  • And finally, there aren’t enough words to express how much I’m enjoying Physics on the Fringe by Margret Wertheim. Wertheim (herself super fascinating) is trained as a physicist, works as a science writer and often collaborates with her artist twin sister. Physics on the Fringe is super approachable, funny and engaging enough that in the next couple of days, I’ll finish it and return it back to the Columbus Metropolitan Library, where you too could check it out for free.


Here’s to Wu Chien-Shiung, to getting to know our universe a little better and to you for boldly going where no (wo)man has gone before.








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