Wu and her students—excerpts from Chapter 8 of the Chinese biography

Wu and her students—excerpts from Chapter 8 of the Chinese biography

There are a lot of reasons that Madame Wu Chien-Shiung: The First Lady of Physics Research in its 2012 English translation is an imperfect book. But what it lacks in fact-checking, objectivity and scientific depth is (for our purposes) made up for by the original reporting done by the author Chiang Tsai-Chien. 

In a trip to the United States in 1989-90, Chiang interviewed up to 20 former students and colleagues of C. S. Wu, including Wu herself and also Stanley Ruby in an interview at the Plaza Hotel in New York on January 15, 1990. 

Much of the book's Chapter 8: A World Authority on Beta Decay about Wu's work style and her relationship to students, as well as about the facts of the Rustad-Ruby affair, is based on these interviews. Here I will excerpt from the chapter at some length.

The chapter picks up in 1946 as the classified war work was winding down. Wu undertakes a deliberate survey of the literature to identify her next area of research interest. It would be beta decay, a field in which there remained a mismatch of theory and experiment. 

The theory was Fermi's 1932 formulation using Pauli's recent suggestion of the neutrino to explain the nuclear interaction in radioactivity, as well as derivative theoretical corrections and extensions to the Fermi theory. The problem was that experimental evidence from various laboratories around the world was inconsistent. Fifteen years since Fermi had first posited his theory of beta decay, it was still an open question as to its value. 

Into this morass stepped Wu with a systematic program of beta spectra experiments. In 1949, for a study of radioactive copper, she and a collaborator developed new techniques enabling precision measurements and analytics to interpret the data. Chiang writes:

Wu’s experimental result of beta ray spectra was in perfect agreement with Fermi’s theory. This paper firmly settled the arguments about beta decay. Wu had established her position in beta decay as a world renowned, ultra-precise experimental physicist.

In a single stroke, Wu was now recognized as a world authority on beta decay with a specific reputation for precision measurements. Yet she still held down the modest title of Research Associate in the hidebound Columbia physics department. She was not given a teaching position until 1952, but before then she was able to advise graduate students in laboratory work. 

Before 1951, her colleagues at Columbia discussed several times if they should offer her a teaching position, but without success. Wu was totally devoted to her research, and had no interest in fighting for promotion or salary.

This is a paragraph from Chiang that gets a single footnote at the end, citing two interviews, one with Noemie Koller, a student, and the other with Charles Townes, a department professor. This bunching of citations is something Chiang does several times as we will see. 

Wu was finally promoted to associate professor with tenure in 1952....although her salary was still low. It stayed that way until the new chairman, Robert Serber, noticed the discrepancy and made a drastic adjustment in 1975. Wu never publicly discussed this matter; she devoted her attention to research.

Here, the first part of the paragraph is attributed to an interview withe Serber. The last sentence is the author's opinion. 

Most of this next long section is based on the interview with Koller. Koller began her graduate work under Wu in 1953. She received her Ph.D. in 1958 and went on to Rutgers University, where she was the first female tenured professor. Wu remained a mentor to her throughout her career. 

Wu behaved like a stern parent and treated her students like children. She had high expectations of them, but also gave them a lot to do. She was not like a famous professor on a high pedestal looking down on the students; rather, she always chatted with them about physics or other issues. Her students said that their research group was like a close family, working all day long side by side, frequently having lunches and dinners together. A student who worked with her closely recalled that when he and his girlfriend once met Wu on the street, she stopped and waited for them, making sure that he would introduce the girl.

Wu worked very hard. She typically started around eight in the morning, put in a long day teaching and doing research, and stayed in the laboratory until seven or eight in the eventing, with lunches and dinners in either the university cafeteria or neighborhood restaurants. Sometimes she would stay until midnight. Koller said that Wu frequently carried home technical problems after leaving the laboratory at night, and had them solved the next morning.

Wu believed in total devotion to research. She practiced this belief, and expected the same of her students. She could not understand how a researcher 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.

Actually, the anecdote about meeting a student's girlfriend is not from Koller but from Luke Wei Wo, and we'll return to take a closer look at that later. More about her interactions with students:

Wu’s students recalled that she was the undisputed authority in the laboratory, and that she would never hesitate at all to correct any mistake that students had made. She preferred to lead a team of students, rather than collaborating with other scientists. She had very good insight, and always selected the most difficult—and the most fundamental—problems to attack. Students would argue with her about physics problems, but her opinions always turned out to be right. The students later found out that her opinions and understanding were results of years of experience. They very much admired her insight into physics.

Now we see the beginnings of a theme developing. Contrary to someone who does not advocate for herself, Wu was fiercely competitive and very deliberate about protecting her work and reputation. 

In the 20th century, research in science had become much more competitive for funding support and recognition. As such, it was a far cry for 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....

As her experimental work faced increasing competition, Wu told her students not to show their data to visitors until it was published because it might be stolen. When guests pried, she switched to a particularly convoluted form of Chinese-English. She could talk and talk in a charmingly soft voice and yet somehow never answer the question....

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.

The last paragraph above is attributed to Stanley Ruby.

Sometimes, Wu would become really angry at the students. She would never yell at them, but would quietly go inter her office, not talking to the students. Around that time, the students considered installing a light beam detector at a certain height to monitor her mood....They did not really install the monitor. But they gradually understood, and got used to her quiet stubbornness.

Wu was nicknamed “Dragon Lady” in Colombia’s physics department in the early 1950s. “Dragon Lady” was the name given to a glamorous but dangerous Chinese beauty. She was a character in a popular US newspaper comic strip, Terry and the Pirates, telling stories set near Hong Kong....

Wu’s signature qipao dress, her strong opinions, and her demands on the students naturally landed her with the nickname. He 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. 

Here the attribution is Ruby and Koller, and also New York Times science writer Walter Sullivan.

I will pause here and pick up in a new post because the rest of the chapter directly concerns the Rustad-Ruby affair and deserves its own in-depth treatment.