Wong Tang-Fong

Madame Wu Chien-Shiung: The First Lady of Physics Research

Tsai-Chien Chiang
Translation by Wong Tang-Fong
World Scientific
Jan 1 2014

Wu believed in total devotion to research. She practiced this belief and expected the same of her students. She could not understand how a research could be distracted. She demanded perfection from her students. The most precise measurement, and accurate calculation in every step of every experiment. She asked her students to work all day on weekdays, Saturdays, and sometimes Sundays. She did not shy away from expressing her disappointment when her students failed to meet her demands

In the 20th century, research in science had become much more competitive for funding support and recognition. As such, it was a far cry from the earlier cooperative atmosphere. People who knew her well believed that she was highly competitive by nature, and she felt that she had to double her effort in order to succeed, given what she had gone through in a rather oppressive environment.

. Wu was fundamentally a serious and reserved person, not that open and straightforward. In a way, she was a rather private person [Koller, Boehm].

One of her students remembered her rather defensive personality. There was a famous European scientist visiting Columbia. His English was not that Fluent, and he would occasionally ask students for the right word during his lecture. By contrast, Wu could never be comfortable without having prepared perfect lecture notes in advance [Ruby].


Wu was nicknamed “Dragon Lady” in Columbia’s physics department in the early 1950s. “Dragon Lady” was the name given to a glamorous but dangerous Chinese beauty in a popular U.S. newspaper comic strip, Terry and the Pirates

Wu’s signature qipao dress, her strong opinions, and her demands on the students naturally landed her with the nickname. Her students occasionally referred to her by this nickname behind her back, but did so with affection. Her students and contemporaries recalled that she was actually the most humane, generous and warm professor in the physics department. Most of the others were rather self-centered folks, with little concern for students. [Ruby, Koller]

Her manner was a reflection of her personality. She was basically a private person, and was rather reserved. Some felt that they did not know what her true intentions were. [collaborators Bohm and Ambler, students Koller and Ruby]

Wu also took care of and nurtured young students at Columbia University—quite different from the typical “self-centered” great physicists there. [Ruby.]

In the early 1950s, two of Wu’s students, S. Ruby and B. Rustad, performed an experiment to investigate the beta decay in the transition from radioactive helium (He-6) to lithium (LI-6). Wu held discussions with the students during the experimental process. The students published a short article in Physical Review Letters in 1952, followed by a long article in the Physical Review in 1955. The determined that the Fermi theory had a scalar (S) transition matrix, and the Gamow-Teller theory had a tensor (T) transition matrix.

Wu’s concern that a child would add a certain distraction was not only for women. A male Ph.D. student in the 1950s got married and fathered a child. Wu was very surprised to see the student and the child together walking in the street. She found it unthinkable to have a child while still a graduate student [William Bennett]


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