Madame Wu and the backward universe

Galileo's Pendulum

    The great experimental physicist Chien-Shiung Wu in 1958. [Credit: Smithsonian Institution] The great experimental physicist Chien-Shiung Wu in 1958. [Credit: Smithsonian Institution] In physics, it often seems that the theorists — the people thinking up new models and ideas to describe the natural world — get most of the glory. The Einsteins, Newtons, and Hawkings are generally better known than the people who do experiments. As a result, many of the great experimental physicists get overlooked even when we talk about important discoveries. However, without work in labs (and observatories), theories are no better than random thoughts; many theories have been ruled out by experiment, and forgotten as a result.

The neglect of experiment in the popular imagination is completely unfair, though. A case in point: the Chinese-American physicist Chien-Shiung Wu (1912-1997), known to many simply as Madame Wu, is not widely known by non-physicists, even though her accomplishments were many. Among other things, she worked on the Manhattan Project, did…

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