Home News Columbia physicist honored with US commemorative postage honor

Columbia physicist honored with US commemorative postage honor

Awards and milestones

The experimental work of Chien-Shiung Wu is considered to be one of the most important developments in the field of atomic and nuclear physics. Image with credit stamp: Ethel Kessler, Design / Kam Mak, art

Chien-Shiung Wu led a life full of firsts: the first female president of the American Physical Society, the first woman to be hired as a full faculty member by the Columbia Physics Department, and the first living scientist to have an asteroid named in her honor.

Now there is one more award to add to her legacy. Wu, who died in 1997 at the age of 84, is the first Chinese-American physicist and the third female physicist - the others are Maria Goeppert Mayer and Sally Ride - to be trained by the U.S. Postal Service will be honored with a special postage stamp.

Chien-Shiung Wu was one of the most influential physicists of the 20th century, said William Gicker Jr., director of postage stamp services at USPS. During her 40 year career in a male dominated field, she established herself as an authority on the physical sciences and made tremendous contributions in the field of nuclear physics that changed modern physical theory forever.

Wu was selected for the honor by the Advisory Committee on Postage of USPS Citizens , which appraises and evaluates around 30,000 suggested topics every year, which leads to the issue of around 25 special stamps.

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The life and work of Chien-Shiung Wu is the subject of the children's book 'Queen of Physics' from 2019 by Teresa Robeson (author) and Rebecca Huang illustrator).

TO virtual ceremony Celebrating their lives and achievements takes place on February 11th, International Day of Women and Girls in Science.

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Humble beginnings

Born in a small town near Shanghai, Wu attended a girls' school founded by her father, an engineer who nurtured her love of science and math. She then studied physics at a university in Nanjing and moved to the USA in 1936 to do her doctorate at the University of California at Berkeley. In 1942 she married the physicist Luke Chia-Lui Yuan.

During World War II, Wu joined the Manhattan Project in Columbia, where researchers worked to develop the world's first atomic bomb. She was instrumental in discovering how uranium can be enriched to make large amounts of fuel, and her experiments improved the ability of Geiger counters to detect radiation.

After the war, Wu took a position at Columbia University, where she stayed until she retired in 1980. In 1952 she was appointed associate professor, in 1958 as full professor and in 1973 as the first female Pupin professor of physics.

At Columbia, she began studying beta decay, the mysterious transformation of one type of element into another that is the basis of nuclear reactions. Her major contributions included the first confirmation of Enrico Fermi's 1933 theory of beta decay, the process by which radioactive atoms become more stable.

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Overlooked for the Nobel Prize

Their most definitive achievement, however, was their 1956 experiment that refuted the 'law of parity conservation' that was once considered the immutable law of physics. This discovery, hailed as one of the most important developments in atomic and nuclear physics, showed that the laws of nature are not always symmetrical.

Brian Greene , Professor of Physics and Mathematics at Columbia, said Wu's discovery that some events in nature can violate the conservation of parity, known as mirror symmetry, stunned physicists and played a critical role in the advancement of atomic science.

After Madame Wu's experiment, we had to completely discard the idea that the universe is mirror symmetry, Greene said. Only a handful of physicists have made contributions that have radically changed our view of reality, and she is one of them.

Wu's groundbreaking work resulted in the 1957 Nobel Prize for Tsung-Dao Lee and Chen Ning Yang , Colleagues whose theories were first confirmed by the so-called Wu experiment, but the award committee did not recognize Wu's work.

Many in the scientific community believe that Wu was overlooked because of gender, while others say it was less of a snub than a rigid adherence to the committee's rules and procedures. If Wu was disappointed in missing out on the Nobel Prize, she never discussed it, at least not with her son Vincent Yuan, a nuclear physicist at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

Her research and students are important to her, said Yuan, who graduated from Columbia College in 1967. It is also part of their nature not to draw attention to themselves, he added. Humility is an integral part of Chinese culture, and my mother preferred to downplay her own accomplishments and focus on those of others.

He said his mother was happy with the recognition she received later in life. In the 1960s and 1970s the field began to celebrate Wu's accomplishments; Her numerous awards include the Comstock Prize in Physics, the National Medal of Science, the Wolf Prize in Physics, and the Columbia Pupin Medal.

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China's superhero

But nowhere was Wu more celebrated than in China, where it was considered a heroic national treasure. (Chien-Shiung means brave hero in Chinese.) In 1990, the name was given to an asteroid discovered by astronomers at the Zijinshan Astronomical Observatory in Nanjing 2752 Wu Chien-Shiung in her honor.

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To celebrate Wu's 100th birthday in 2012, Shanghai officials planned a festival week that included panel discussions, banquets, parades and a modern Shanghai opera about her life. A bronze statue of Wu was unveiled in the courtyard of Mingde Middle School in her hometown of Liuhe, where she was educated and where she was to be buried with her husband, who died in 2003.

Wu's granddaughter Jada Yuan, who grew up in New Mexico, was only vaguely aware of the extent of her grandmother's accomplishments. But after she came east to attend college, they started spending more time together.

She was incredibly interesting and curious, always reading, always traveling, always passionately working on something. She didn't teach me or talk about women's rights per se - although I know she cared about it - but growing up with a powerful woman is powerful, said Yuan, a Washington Post Reporter who was 19 years old when her grandmother died.

Yuan believes her grandmother would be delighted with the stamp and accompanying illustration that captures her likeness. The portrait shows Wu wearing a black and white high collar traditional Chinese robe known as a qipao.

She is not a person who likes to draw attention to herself, Yuan said. But I think she would be happy to be remembered that way.


The Chien-Shiung Wu postage stamp is issued as a forever stamp in discs of 20. It can be purchased from usps.com/shopstamps , by phone call 800-STAMP24 ( 800-782-6724 ), by post USA Philatelie , or at post offices across the country.

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