Thursday, July 24, 2014

happy birthday, amelia

Pioneering aviator Amelia Earhart was born 117 years ago today: July 24, 1897. To celebrate, I arranged for a brief visit with her papers, which are held by the Schlesigner Library at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study in Cambridge, MA. I could have spent hours reading through her letters, school notes, and other memorabilia . . .

The following are snapshots of some of the unique objects in her file. (Click for larger versions.)

Baby book for Amelia and her sister, Muriel.

Notes from chemistry class.

Prep school grades.

1936 letter to a young woman who had asked Earhart for career advice. Choice line: "I warn you deans, teachers, and possible employers are likely to discourage you from so reasonable a line of thought, but I feel women must hold to it if they are to progress."

Holiday card.

U.S. postage stamp memorabilia.

Archival boxes containing Earhart's papers.

The Schlesinger is literally a treasure trove of hidden women's history, and I'm looking forward to spending more time there researching the lives of women in the STEM fields. In the meantime, many thanks to librarian Amanda Strauss, who meticulously prepared Earhart's files for me on short notice!

Top image: Portrait of Earhart in the Schlesigner Library conference room. Uncanny resemblance here to another aviation pioneer, Eileen Collins.

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

women of the periodic table quilt

This article originally appeared on the Scientific American Guest Blog on April 25, 2014.

The Cambridge Science Festival (CSF) is an annual spectacle of more than 150 science-related events and activities taking place in and around Cambridge, Mass. during the month of April. This year, CSF organizers asked local artists, scientists, and science communicators to join forces for a STEAM project portraying “central elements” of science in an artistic light. Participating as a science writer who also dabbles in artistic projects, I teamed up with computer scientist and crafter Gillian Smith. Our common interest in women’s history made it easy to select a project that would highlight and commemorate women who contributed significantly to the discovery of elements of the periodic table. Our canvas would be cotton — colorful and queen sized.

A number of women have made seminal discoveries leading to a greater understanding of the nature of atoms and their properties. Most people, however, can barely name one. In part, this is because scientists in general fail to rank highly among the world’s recognizable boldfaced names. It is also due to the fact that many important discoveries by female scientists have been underplayed or overshadowed by accomplishments of male colleagues and rivals. This has been particularly true in the male-dominated fields of chemistry and physics, which experienced bursts of exponential growth in the 20th century. During this prolific era, mysteries behind the building blocks of the universe began to be solved in rapid succession. But the simultaneous lack of acceptance for women in research settings made it difficult for female scientists to gain widespread recognition, even when their work was exceptional.

For our quilt, Gillian and I chose to highlight five women whose scientific achievements include the discovery of an element or one of its isotopes. They are:

Marie Curie: World-famous Polish physicist who discovered radium (Ra) and polonium (Po) with her husband, Pierre; made history by winning two Nobel Prizes for her work on radiation; and became the namesake of curium (Cm), element 96.

Berta Karlik: Austrian physicist and contemporary of Curie’s who discovered astatine (At), a radioactive element most commonly used for cancer therapy.

Lise Meitner: Noted Austrian physicist and close friend of Karlik’s who discovered nuclear fission; identified an isotope of protactinium (Pa); and later became the namesake of element 109, meitnerium (Mt).

Ida Noddack: German physicist and chemist who discovered rhenium (Re) alongside her husband, Walter, and was nominated three times for a Nobel Prize, but never won.

Marguerite Perey: French physicist and student of Marie Curie’s who discovered francium (Fr), a highly unstable radioactive metal.

The quilt was designed with several goals in mind: to accentuate the women in question with photographs, so viewers would know instinctively that they were actual historical figures; to connect the scientists with a geometric thread representing the weaving of both academic knowledge and sisterhood; and to bring to life the colors of the Cambridge Science Festival.

While I contributed the general concept and led research and writing for the project, Gillian was the quilter extraordinaire who made the artwork come to life. I visited Gillian’s studio during a late stage of the project to capture her process and soak in her thoughts on the joys and challenges of quilting. The images below provide a snapshot of the quilt’s production; a more complete photo album is also available with additional views.

The final quilt will be on display at Cort Furniture on Massachusetts Avenue for the duration of the 2014 Cambridge Science Festival (April 18 – April 27). For anyone in the area who would like to stop by during the CSF Central Elements Open House, Gillian and I will be at Cort alongside our quilt on the afternoon of Sunday, April 27, to describe our project and the women it celebrates.

All photographs by Maia Weinstock.

15 works of art depicting women in science

This post originally appeared March 7, 2014 on Scientific American online.

Research into why women continue to drop out of the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math) despite high aptitude in these areas at early ages increasingly points to factors that include the stereotypical treatment and unequal representation of females in popular culture. It is becoming clear that toys, visual media, and written media, from books to references such as Wikipedia, could do wonders to encourage girls and young women by adding more and better representations of females in STEM. Fortunately this is starting to happen, as evidenced by new offerings such as the latest LEGO scientist, whom I have written about at length on the heels of my own LEGO scientist minfigure project; by the runaway success of Gravity, a film with a medical engineer-astronaut as its protagonist and hero; and by the recent popularity of Wikipedia edit-a-thons, including several I have organized in the U.S. focusing on articles about women in STEM.

But there's another sea change taking place right now, and that is the morphing of STEM into STEAM, an acronym acknowledging that art and design have always been integral to the fields of science and technology. Scientific and mathematical crafts have become easier to find and purchase in recent years, thanks to the growth of online artist communities and marketplaces. And although depictions of scientists remain overwhelmingly male, an increasing number of artworks are beginning to highlight women as thinkers and creators. The artists in the following collection of works featuring women in science have contributed boldly to the dual goals of celebrating women in the STEM fields and portraying them positively through the lens of visual media. A selection of these will be featured at a women-in-STEM art exhibit that I will guest curate at the Art.Science.Gallery. in Austin, Texas, from September 13 through October 15, 2014.

"Marie Curie" - Jeff Fenwick
(goache and ink)

This provocative painting of renowned physicist Marie Curie gazing curiously at a serpent ghost appears at first glance to reference the fact that what Madam Curie became most famous for—her tireless work uncovering the mechanisms of radioactivity—was also what ended up killing her. But Jeff Fenwick, a Toronto-based illustrator and craftsman, describes a secondary symbolism to his work: The snake and vial, he says, were designed to evoke a Rod of Asclepius, the universal symbol of medicine. "The piece is meant to represent Curie's research being a miraculous breakthrough for medical science," Fenwick explains, "while also suggesting the immanent danger Curie was in while working with radioactive materials."

After learning of Curie's life story, and of the circumstances behind her death from overexposure to radiation, Fenwick decided she would make an ideal model for a painting. He began and finished the piece during his first year at OCAD University in Toronto, where he is pursuing a degree in illustration. "I chose Marie Curie because she has a very particular melancholy expression which I felt makes her portrait interesting to study."

Fenwick plans to focus on creating comics and other illustration works after he graduates. "I also see a future," he says, "in marrying my love of design and art with my professional career as a carpenter."

Image credit: © Jeff Fenwick. Used by permission.

"Lise Meitner and Nuclear Fission" - Orlando Leibovitz
(acrylic on jute)

Both Marie Curie and German-born physicist Lise Meitner were responsible for some of the most important physics of the 20th century. Meitner's contribution was the discovery of nuclear fission, the splitting of atoms that led to the development of nuclear energy and atomic weapons. Unlike Curie, who was showered with two Nobel Prizes, Meitner was snubbed when her collaborator, Otto Hahn, took home a solo Nobel in physics for their work. But Meitner's accomplishments eventually earned her something even more enduring: a place on the periodic table of elements. She is the namesake of meitnerium, element 109.

I was pleasantly surprised by the whimsy with which Orlando Leibovitz, a self-taught artist based in Santa Fe, N.M., represented Meitner's signature work. In stark contrast to Jeff Fenwick's cautionary vision of a transformational breakthrough, Leibovitz provides a simpler, more joyful look at an iconic scientist and her discovery. The portrait belongs to a 10-piece series called "Painted Physics," which also includes paintings of Richard Feynman dancing in front of a chalkboard filled with Feynman diagrams and Ernest Shroedinger juggling cats. "Since my teenage years," says Leibovitz, "I have been intrigued by the way theoretical physics explains our universe. Artists seek the same explanations. Art, of course, does not require the same rigorous verification. But creativity and the desire to penetrate the mysterious connect art and physics."

Leibovitz adds: "Lise Meitner's discoveries continue to have a monumental impact on our lives. The way she overcame the discrimination she faced as a woman, as a physicist, and as a Jew in Nazi Germany is a dramatic story. Meitner wrote, 'Science makes people reach selflessly for truth and objectivity. It teaches people to accept reality with wonder and admiration...' She lived that sentiment every day of her life. That is a story worth painting."

Image credit: © Orlando Leibovitz. Used by permission.

"Inge Lehmann and the Earth's Core" - Ele Willoughby
(ink on kozo paper)

Ele Willoughby is a marine geophysicist based in Toronto whose research focuses on gas hydrate deposits in underwater environments. She is also a highly accomplished printmaker who creates screen prints, etchings, and linocut prints on topics in science and the natural world. This wonderful piece depicting Danish seismologist Inge Lehmann, who in 1936 demonstrated that our planet contains a solid inner core, is part of Willoughby's linocut series on famous and lesser-known scientists. "I'm rather passionate about the history of science, particularly physics and geophysics," says Willoughby. "I am more than happy to be sharing it through art—especially under-appreciated female superstars like Inge Lehmann."

The print's geometric red figure is a representation of Earth in cross-section as depicted in Lehmann's seminal paper, "P'," one of the most succinctly titled articles in the history of science. "The three concentric spheres are the mantle, outer core, and inner core, which she postulated," Willoughby explains. "'E' marks the epicenter of a massive earthquake. The numbered rays from E show the waves we would expect to observe at various angular distances around the Earth, as time progresses and they propagate through the planet."

"I'm not sure when I realized," Willoughby adds, "that the Lehmann of the Lehmann discontinuity or the American Geophysical Union's Lehmann Medal recognized a woman whose career spanned a period when it would have been unusual for her to achieve what she did. The more I looked into her story, the more interesting she was. It was not only really clever to infer that what she was seeing in the data were earthquake waves that shouldn't have been there if the core was fluid as it was believed; it was really a paradigm shift. She decided that these needed a proper, systematic explanation, and her bold hypothesis fit. It isn't widely recognized—even among earth scientists—that this fundamental discovery about the structure of our planet was the work of a pioneering woman in the field."

Image credit: © Ele Willoughby. Used by permission.

"Portrait of Gabrielle-Émilie le Tonnelier de Breteuil, Marquise du Châtelet" - Nicolas de Largillière
(oil on canvas)

The great 18th-century mathematician, physicist, and natural philosopher Émilie du Châtelet has been the subject of quite a few artistic renditions, but this radiant portrait by French painter Nicolas de Largillière is my favorite by far.

It dates to around 1735, a period in history when it was almost unheard of for a female scholar—particularly one who worked in the natural sciences—to be depicted by a master painter such as De Largillière. The work also dates, roughly, to the time when Du Châtelet reconnected with her childhood friend, Voltaire, the historian and philosopher who would become her lover, intellectual partner, and lifelong friend.

Paris-born Émilie du Châtelet was drawn to the sciences from an early age, and she benefited from the encouragement and tutoring of many fine academics. As an adult, she became particularly fascinated with the work of Isaac Newton, and she is considered to have been a leading driver of the move among French academics away from Cartesian physics and toward Newtonian physics. Near the end of her short life she contributed her most lasting work, a translation and commentary on Netwton's groundbreaking Principia. It is, to this day, the standard translation of the work into French. Du Châtelet died after the birth of her fourth child at the age of 42.

The symbols and gestures in De Largillière's portrait are chock-full of meaning. First, Du Châtelet is staring skyward, a likely nod to the fact that she was interested in astronomy and the cosmos. She grips with her right hand a gold compass, symbolizing her work in measuring and bringing order to the natural world and universe. Her left hand sits on a celestial globe, probably a cue to her reverence for Newton's theory of universal gravitation. Whether the positioning of this hand just above the constellation Scorpio was related to the fact that her beloved Voltaire was born under that particular sign is up for debate.

Incidentally, this artwork is likely the most valuable among those presented in this collection; the original sold at auction for $134,500 in 2010.

Image credit: Nicolas de Largillière.

"Kathleen Yardley Lonsdale," "Barbara McClintock," "Agnes Pockels," and "Maria Goeppert-Mayer" - Jennifer Mondfrans
(oil, acrylic, and wax pastel)

"I was having a conversation with a male acquaintance, and we were talking scientists," begins San Francisco artist Jennifer Mondfrans. "He thought the only historical woman scientist was Marie Curie. After asking many of my smart friends, I realized that this was a secret history that needed to be known."

Mondfrans's response was two spellbinding series of vivid portraits depicting notable, but not necessarily well-known, women in science and mathematics. One set, "At Least I Have You, To Remember Me," pairs portraits in wild, saturated colors with "autobiographies" in the form of letters to the viewer. These are meant to imprint a story along with Mondfrans's visual interpretation of the scientist in question. The other set, "Women Scientists in History," includes alternate interpretations for some of the same personalities, while introducing yet more individuals to her overall mix. "I chose women who had accomplished great work and who had been photographed," Mondfrans says.

The four women represented here are (clockwise from top left): Kathleen Lonsdale, the pioneering British crystallographer who proved that the benzene ring is a flat hexagon; Barbara McClintock, the American geneticist and Nobel Prize-winner who produced the first genetic map of maize; Agnes Pockels, an underappreciated German pioneer in the discipline of surface science; and German-American Maria Goeppert-Mayer, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist who proposed the nuclear shell model of the atomic nucleus.

Mondfrans plans to add even more portraits of women to her science collections, as time allows. High on her to-do list are chemist Irène Joliot-Curie and biologist Lynn Margulis. "I will continue to do scientists as they pass," she says, "to create an ongoing history."

Image credits (4): © Jennifer Mondfrans. Used by permission.

"Henrietta Swan Leavitt" - Raúl Colón
(colored pencil and lithographic crayon on paper)

I live in the same neighborhood where astronomer Henrietta Swan Leavitt spent a great deal of time, carefully analyzing the brightness of stars as they were observed around the turn of the 20th century. I often pass by her former office at the Harvard Observatory, and by the last apartment building she lived in before she died. I wonder how life might have been for her, walking these same streets.

Physically, much of the area remains unchanged, but in Leavitt's time, women couldn't even dream of matriculating at a university like Harvard. Nevertheless, she was one of a famous group of women who not only worked at the Harvard Observatory (earning next to nothing, I might add) but who also succeeded in making a number of major contributions to the field of astronomy.

Last summer, I came across a children's picture book about Leavitt, written by Robert Burleigh and illustrated by New York artist Raúl Colón. It details her life and greatest work: the discovery of an important relationship between the changing brightness of so-called variable stars and the duration, or period, of their light fluctuations. Leavitt gained little notoriety for it in her lifetime, but this observation proved so fundamental to later discoveries about our place in the cosmos that a number of scholars, including renowned astronomer Edwin Hubble, considered it worthy of a Nobel Prize. "I was impressed by her accomplishment—basically, finding a way to measure the distance of stars," says Colón. In his portrait, the top panel represents the varying brightness of a star, while the bottom is a recreation of how Henrietta and her fellow "computers" noted the changes on paper.

"When I visited Harvard, I saw the transparencies of different stars Henrietta and other astronomers studied," Colón explains. "I also read through some of the notebooks they used to annotate their observations concerning the degree of brightness in each star through a period of time. Having some of the equipment they used—like the glass device to place the transparencies—right there for me to study and sketch really connected me to the past and her story."

Image credit: © Raúl Colón. Used by permission. Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.

"Mae Jemison" - Muhammad Yungai
(oil on canvas)

You may know that Mae Jemison was the first African American woman in space, but did you have any idea that she's a serious dancer? That she spent two and a half years as a Peace Corps doctor in Africa? Or that she fulfilled a childhood dream by playing a small role on Star Trek: The Next Generation?

Mae Carol Jemison has become an inspiration to women and children everywhere, not only because she earned the call from NASA, but because she has, in her post-astronaut years, excelled as a multifaceted and highly successful businesswoman, tech developer, and social leader.

These credentials, plus her commitment to education, are just a few of the reasons why Atlanta-based artist and teacher Muhammad Yungai decided to create this expressive portrait of Jemison as part of his colorful "29 Black People You Should Know" series. "Mae Jemison is an amazing woman whose story should be known," he says.

Yungai is a self-taught painter who grew up in New Orleans with a passion for artistic expression. "After receiving praise and guidance at a very early age from my father, my fascination with art bloomed into an unquenchable thirst," he writes on his website.

Today, Yungai lives in Atlanta, where he teaches visual arts to children at the KIPP WAYS Academy. His portrait of Mae Jemison was created to honor Black History Month and to serve as a fundraiser for his students. Along with the other 28 paintings of historical black leaders from Langston Hughes to Whitney Houston, Jemison's portrait was auctioned off, with proceeds going toward materials to help Yungai instruct a new generation of artists.

Image credit: © Muhammad Yungai. Used by permission.

"Jane Goodall Darwin Day Portrait Project 2013" - Hayley Gillespie
(paper collage and acrylic on wood panel)

In 2012, ecologist, conservation biologist, and artist Hayley Gillespie began the Darwin Day Portrait Project, a community endeavor in Austin, TX, that celebrates great naturalists on Charles Darwin's birthday (February 12th). After crafting a collage of Darwin himself for the inaugural event, Gillespie decided to focus this year on primatologist Jane Goodall, a chimpanzee expert and one of the most celebrated scientists of the 20th century.

By happy coincidence, Gillespie learned she would have the opportunity to show her work to Goodall just a few months later, during a public lecture at Southwestern University, where Gillespie was a visiting professor. "I felt a lot of pressure to get the portrait just right because I knew she might see it," Gillespie admits. "'Very good likeness,' was her calm assessment, so I felt really good about that!"

The collage, now signed by Goodall (top right), is on display at the Texas Memorial Museum in Austin—not far from Art.Science.Gallery., another of Gillespie's creative endeavors. She began the project in response to her popular blog about science and art. "I met so many amazing artist-scientists through my blog who were searching for a place to exhibit their work," she explains. "I woke up one morning and said, 'Why not start a gallery specifically for science and nature-inspired work?'" Art.Science.Gallery. existed in pop-up mode for some time, but it now has a permanent space a few miles east of downtown Austin, where it not only showcases artworks but also provides a home for science communication activities.

"My mother, several aunts and grandmother are all artists, and my grandfathers were engineers, so art and science have just always been a part of my life," Gillespie says. "I think they were just as much a part of Darwin's life—who had to draw, sketch, etc.—or Earnst Haeckel's life, who became famous for his Art Forms in Nature. Somehow the two fields became more separated in the 20th century as science became more quantitative. But, I think we're on the verge of a major resurgence of integrating arts and sciences."

Image credit: © Hayley Gillespie. Used by permission.

"Rosalind Franklin" - Geoffrey Appleton
(acrylic on board)

This unique painting of renowned x-ray crystallographer Rosalind Franklin was commissioned in the late 1990s by the science department of Staffordshire University in England. "I wanted to show Franklin at work," says British artist Geoffrey Appleton, who was trained at St. Albans College and the Canterbury College of Art, now part of Kent University. "I knew more about her as a figure that had been sidelined in the DNA structure discovery, rather than as a committed crystallographer. But I got the impression from reading about her that she was very hard-working and thorough and solitary."

Appleton's intent was to portray Franklin "as an innocent in a dark, male-dominated world," with the feet of scientific rivals James Watson and Francis Crick "waiting in the wings." The figure before Franklin represents Photograph 51, her famous DNA x-ray image. Without her knowledge or permission, Franklin's colleague Maurice Wilkins showed Photo 51 to Watson and Crick shortly before they introduced the world to DNA's double helix structure in 1953. This photo led directly to Watson and Crick's discovery, and today Franklin is often credited as a co-discoverer of DNA's structure.

But only Watson, Crick, and Wilkins shared the Nobel Prize—and the early glory—for this achievement. Franklin died at age 37 from ovarian cancer, likely a result of her work with high-energy particles. This left her ineligible for a share of the Nobel, since the prizes may not be awarded posthumously. It also left her unable to defend herself when Watson and others publicly belittled her in books and interviews. In more recent years, Franklin has become a revered symbol of the history of discrimination against women in science.

Geoffrey Appleton has been a freelance illustrator since the 1980s. If you look closely, you can make out his likeness as a symbol of genetic inheritance on the bottom right of his Franklin portrait. "The picture is based on a family photo, showing my Mum and Dad with me as a baby," he says. "It's a sort of nod toward my identity."

Image credit: © Geoffrey Appleton; Staffordshire University. Used by permission.

"Rita Levi-Montalcini" - Francesca Mantuano

On the penultimate day of 2012, the world said goodbye to Rita Levi-Montalcini, a spirited and highly decorated Italian neurologist best known for her Nobel Prize-winning discovery of nerve growth factor. That same day, Italian artist Francesca Mantuano created this digital portrait of the esteemed scientist.

Levi-Montalcini was 103 years young when she died, and by all accounts she lived each of those years to the fullest. Born an identical twin in 1909, Levi-Montalcini's early career was colored by the dark cloud of World War II. After studying chicken embryos in hiding, she moved to the U.S., where she spent three decades on the faculty of Washington University in St. Louis, MO. There, she focused her work on a mysterious protein responsible for nerve growth and maintenance. She would eventually return to her homeland, first part-time and later for good. Levi-Montalcini never stopped working or supporting the causes that were important to her. A longtime champion of women in science, she was also, from 2001 until her death, a fiery member of the Italian senate. "I've always admired her for her work and contributions that she gave to science," says Mantuano, "but also for her personality and importance in the Italian social contest. I wanted to make a tribute because I think it's important to honor this kind of character, especially nowadays, when the Italian social-political-cultural situation is not the most prosperous and shiny."

Mantuano dabbles in various media, but her first love is comics. She has completed programs in comic, cartoon, and animation design, and she is soon to finish a program in Web design at the New Institute of Design in Perugia. Mantuano takes pride in the achievements of Levi-Montalcini and hopes the illustration of her fellow countrywoman might serve as an inspiration: "We must remember that we, as a nation and people, can do a lot and bring a lot of enrichment to others."

Image credit: © Francesca Mantuano. Used by permission.

"(Augusta) Ada King, Countess of Lovelace (1815-1852) Mathematician; Daughter of Lord Byron" - Margaret Sarah Carpenter
(oil on canvas)

Augusta Ada King, the 19th century Countess of Lovelace, is best known for her work on the Analytical Engine, an early computing machine devised by her mentor and friend, Charles Babbage. Her predictions on how this and other machines might one day move beyond simple arithmetic calculation were unique for her time, and for this reason she is considered a visionary in the field of computational technology. She is also said by many to be the first computer programmer for the notes she contributed to an Italian article about the Analytical Engine.

But Ada Lovelace is way more than the sum of her intellectual, mathematical achievements. She has become, especially in the last five years, an influential symbol of the celebration of women who have contributed significantly, oftentimes silently or without reward, to the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

This regal painting of Lady Lovelace was completed by British portraitist Margaret Carpenter in 1836. It was the same year that Lovelace gave birth to the first of three children with her husband William King, a.k.a. the Earl of Lovelace.

The piece was greeted with critical acclaim at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, but Lovelace herself was far from pleased with the likeness. In fact, she responded rather brusquely to it, and to Carpenter's effort. "I conclude she is bent on displaying the whole expanse of my capacious jaw bone," Lovelace wrote, "upon which I think the word Mathematics should be written."

Image credit: Margaret Carpenter.

"Sally Ride" - Andrea Del Rio
(mixed media)

It is fitting that astronaut, physicist, and science educator Sally Ride would strike a pose in this portrait so similar to that of her fellow pioneer, Ada Lovelace. Standing tall with her characteristic bright, inviting smile, Ride provides hope for the next generation of explorers, whether out in the cosmos or here on Earth.

In becoming the first American woman in space, Ride captured the world's attention when she flew on the shuttle Challenger in 1983. But in her post-NASA career, up until the day she died of pancreatic cancer in the summer of 2012, Ride made her living as a steadfast champion of STEM education. She particularly encouraged young girls to "reach for the stars."

Andrea Del Rio, a Peruvian art student at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, attempted to capture that inspiration in her unique artwork. To create Ride's likeness, Del Rio utilized a variety of media, including watercolor, charcoal, india ink, colored pencil, chalk pastels, and acrylic paint. "The pose is empowering," Del Rio says. "Her helmet represents what the world saw her accomplish, and her suit shows what perhaps she saw out there in space. Sally did great things that before her time were not possible. As she smiles and looks away, I believe she is thinking how everything turned out just fine. Nothing is impossible."

Del Rio's own aspirations include becoming a full-time portrait painter and textile designer. On this particular work, she adds: "I wanted to represent someone who had overcome many obstacles to achieve her dreams, to serve as inspiration for me and other people, to realize that the possibilities are endless. Like saying, 'Look at her! She did it. Now get to work!'"

Image credit: Andrea Del Rio. Used by permission.

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

calling all astro dj's!

Do you love astronomy, space flight, and the beauty of the cosmos? When you hear these subjects explored in song does your inner nerd smile from ear to ear? Are you curious about the artists who choose to cover astro-related topics? If so, you should contribute to Astrotunes!

It's been two years since I began the Astrotunes blog on Tumblr, and I've thoroughly enjoyed writing about songs that cover all manner of topics in space and astronomy. Unfortunately, though, I haven't been able to keep the blog as current as I'd like, so I've decided to open it up to contributing writers.

Anyone can submit a post, and commitment level is entirely up to individual contributors. Need an idea for a song to write about? I've got tons. Posts don't have to be very long, but should convey something notable about the song, artist, video, or a related event in astro news or history. All authors will be credited on their posts, and regular contributors will be added to the "masthead" on Tumblr. Please note there will be no compensation, as Astrotunes is a labor of love :)

Interested in participating? Get in touch for more information.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

gone in 2013: a tribute to 10 remarkable women in science

This post originally appeared on the Scientific American Guest Blog on December 30, 2013.

Pioneering scientists and engineers are often overlooked in popular retrospectives commemorating the year’s departed. In particular, women in such fields tend to be given short shrift. To counter this regrettable circumstance, I present here a selection of 10 notable women in science who left us in 2013. Each of these individuals contributed greatly to her field and should be remembered for her exceptional accomplishments. This, of course, is not a comprehensive list; I’d welcome your thoughts, in the comments below, on any others who may also be deserving of recognition.

Eleanor Adair
A dual expert in physics and psychology, Eleanor Adair was a trailblazing American researcher in the field of microwave radiation safety. She carried out numerous controlled studies in which she exposed monkeys and human volunteers—including herself—with microwave radiation. Her conclusions were always the same: environmental microwaves such as those emitted by cell phones, microwave ovens, and power lines have no adverse effects on health. Adair’s work ultimately helped set international standards for microwave exposure. She died on April 20 at age 86.

Brigitte Askonas
Austrian-born British immunologist Brigitte “Ita” Askonas contributed many influential works on the nature of the human immune system. She is best known for her groundbreaking studies elucidating the behavior of antibody-producing B cells and determining the role of T lymphocytes in viral infections. Askonas served for 12 years as head of the Division of Immunology at the National Institute for Medical Research in London and was both a fellow of the UK’s Royal Society and a foreign associate of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. Askonas was 89 when she died on Jan. 9, 2013.

Ruth Benerito
Holder of 55 patents and a 2008 inductee to the National Inventors Hall of Fame, Ruth R. Benerito was an American chemist best known for her invention of “easy-care” permanent press cotton, a staple of modern fabrics. Her work at the U.S. Department of Agriculture in New Orleans focused on chemically bonding cotton fibers in a way that would prevent wrinkling. Today, many think of her inventions as having saved the cotton industry. Benerito passed away at age 97 on Oct. 5, 2013.

Yvonne Brill
Yvonne Brill was a Canadian-born American aerospace engineer whose career focused on developments in rocket propulsion. Her most important contribution was the invention of a thrust mechanism that is now routinely used to help keep satellites in their proper orbits. Brill was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2010 and awarded the U.S. National Medal of Technology and Innovation in 2011. Her death in March at age 88 led to a review of best practices for writing about notable women in history after The New York Times received criticism for citing in Brill’s obituary her ability to “make a mean Beef Stroganoff” before any mention of her professional accomplishments.

Katharine Giles
Katharine Giles, a British climate scientist studying the effects of global warming on sea ice, died suddenly on April 8 at age 35 after being hit by a truck while cycling to work in London. Giles’s most recent research focused on using radar data to monitor sea ice thickness in the Arctic and Antarctic. Giles had discovered that satellite altimeter observations between floes, or large chunks of sea ice, could illustrate to scientists how winds affect the Arctic Ocean in the wake of sea ice melting.

Margherita Hack
Known as the “lady of the stars,” Margherita Hack was a beloved Italian astrophysicist, science writer and public commentator. The first woman to lead an astronomical observatory in Italy, Hack taught astronomy at the University of Trieste. Some considered her an Italian Carl Sagan because of her enormous influence as a writer, teacher and public figure. Hack used her gift for communication to champion civil rights, rational thinking, vegetarianism and the wonders of astronomy. She died on June 29, 2013 at age 91.

Virginia Johnson
American sexologist Virginia E. Johnson was one of the first researchers to systematically investigate human sexuality. Together with her colleague and former husband, William H. Masters, Johnson made clinical observations of some 700 volunteer subjects to chronicle the physiology and psychology of human sexual behavior. This work led to their identification of four distinct stages of sexual behavior, or, what is now known as the human sexual response cycle. Johnson co-authored numerous papers and books detailing the duo’s findings and became a sought-after sex therapist as part of the Masters and Johnson Institute in St. Louis. Johnson passed away on July 24. She was 88.

Ruth Patrick
The field of limnology, or freshwater ecology, owes a great debt to American environmental scientist Ruth Patrick, a pioneer in the study of water pollution. Her work on single-celled algae known as diatoms led to a new understanding of the types of environmental stresses that can affect freshwater systems. A longtime environmental activist, Patrick authored more than 200 research articles and was honored in 2009 with the National Medal of Science. She died on Sept. 23, 2013 at the awe-inspiring age of 105.

Candace Pert
Candace Pert was an American neuroscientist and mind-body researcher who identified the first opiate receptor, or cellular binding site, in the brain. Her discovery laid the groundwork for future research in brain biochemistry and helped her graduate advisor—but not her—earn the prestigious Lasker Award, often referred to as the American Nobel. Pert, who died on Sept. 12 at the age of 67, also discovered the receptors for Valium and PCP but eventually shifted her career to focus on the application of scientific standards to questions of whether and how the brain may play a role in disease.

Janet Rowley
That cancer can have a genetic basis has only been known for about 40 years, and it was American physician and geneticist Janet Rowley who discovered the first evidence of such a connection. While working with leukemia in the early 1970s, Rowley found that chromosomal slip-ups known as translocations can lead to the development of cancerous cells. Her research on cancer genetics was far-reaching and laid the groundwork for a number of important therapies. Rowley, who died at age 88 on Dec. 17, was the recipient of countless awards for her outstanding work, most notably the National Medal of Science, the Lasker Award and the National Medal of Freedom, which is the United States’ highest civilian honor.

Individual photo credits, top to bottom: Courtesy of Michael R. Murphy; MRC National Institute for Medical Research; Mary Jackson, courtesy of the Lemelson-MIT Program; Wikimedia Commons; University College London; Wikimedia Commons; Courtesy of Becker Medical Library, Washington University School of Medicine; Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University ANSP Archives coll. 457; Press image - author unknown; Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

smiling for cassini

Remember when we all smiled and waved at Saturn back in July, while the Cassini spacecraft snapped our photo? Well, the full mosaic from that magical day has finally been processed by Cassini's imaging team, and boy, is it a stunner. I'm not at all embarrassed to admit that it brought a tear to my eye the moment I saw it in full size...

Like a lens that might be utilized to view either the incredibly small or the incredibly distant, this mosaic compels us both to look inward, at how we might improve ourselves and the health of our only home, and to keep dreaming, about what else awaits us so long as we continue on in our quest to explore the solar system and beyond. (Indeed, if ever an image were appropriate to use as a call to action for those deciding the budgetary fates of our national space program, this one would be it.)

The timing of today's release coincides with the ceremonial hand-off of the late Carl Sagan's papers to the Library of Congress, where they have recently been archived for future generations to examine. We can all be sure that Sagan would have been quite pleased with this most magnificent interplanetary portrait... It is, of course, not only a thing of beauty, perfectly planned to take advantage of a breathtaking alignment of the sun, Saturn, and Earth. The image also reminds us just how tiny we are in the grand scheme of the cosmos—and how important it is to connect regularly with our fellow human beings so that we may reflect on our shared place in the universe.

I'm proud to have played a minor role in the planning of the #DayEarthSmiled and will remember these past months, and those 15 peaceful minutes in July, for many moons to come. For further insight, I highly recommend the latest Captain's Log from Cassini's imaging leader, Carolyn Porco, which beautifully summarizes her intent for the project and describes the many hidden treats you'll find if you take a closer look at the final mosaic.

Even if you missed the big event this past summer, take heart in knowing that your essence was captured in time and in space in this spectacular image in the year 2013.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

ada lovelace wikipedia edit-a-thon at brown: a recap

Ada Lovelace Day 2013 has come and gone. I'm proud to have co-organized an extremely successful Wikipedia edit-a-thon this year at my alma mater, Brown University, on October 15th. As with the similar event I led at Harvard last year, the aim was to increase the participation of female editors on Wikipedia while simultaneously giving new visibility to important women in the STEM fields on one of the most popular encyclopedias in the world. I dare say we achieved these goals, and then some.

All told, about 40 people attended in person, while another 25-30 participants contributed remotely via the Web. We began accepting contributions a week prior to the event and allowed folks to add their final edits through the 18th. In total, we added 20 new Wikipedia articles, mostly biographies on individual women in the STEM fields. These included mathematician and computer scientist Sibyl Rock, archaeologist Blanche Wheeler Williams, electrical engineer Ingeborg Hochmair, and neuropathologist Ann McKee. Nearly 70 additional articles—again, mainly bios—were also added to, cleaned up, or otherwise improved. Three of the new articles (Hochmair, Rock, and Williams) were accepted to Wikipedia's front-page "Did You Know?" area. This is a phenomenal result for a single edit-a-thon! (Full list of articles created/improved.)

This year's event was co-organized by my friend and former undergraduate advisor, Anne-Fausto Sterling, whom I had the pleasure of teaching how to edit Wikipedia earlier this summer. Through her efforts, and the efforts of Brown's Science and Technology Studies Program; Science Center; and Pembroke Center for Teaching and Research on Women, we were able to round up some impressive national and international press prior to and after the event. This couldn't have happened without the assistance of the Brown University news office, and especially David Orenstein. Thanks to their press release, dozens of media outlets featured our edit-a-thon as part of Ada Lovelace Day. We also garnered thousands of tweets, posts, and comments through social media. For a visual summary, including photos, tweets, and write-ups, check out our colorful Storify recap. Here, also, is a representative list of some original articles that covered our event:

Al Jazeera America | A Mighty Girl | Associated Press | The Atlantic | BoingBoing | Boston Globe | Business Week | Brown Daily Herald | Bust | Chronicle of Higher Education | Campus Technology | CJAD 800 News Radio (Montreal) | Daily Dot | Fast Company | FayerWayer (Spanish) | Feministing | Geek Exchange | Il Fatto Quotidiano (Italian) | Jezebel | Linkiesta (Italian) | LiveScience | The Mary Sue | New York | New Yorker | New York Times | PBS | Policy Mic | The Scientist | Silicon Angle | Slate | Southern California Public Radio (@ 1:29:40) | Slate | Slate France (French) | Washington Post | World Science Festival

The edit-a-thon itself went off without a hitch, and it was truly incredible to see so many students, faculty, staff, and even a few out-of-town visitors who made the trek to join us in Pembroke Hall. Many folks came in knowing not a lick of Wikipedia markup language. Others were experienced Wikimedians who worked on their own articles but also helped others through the afternoon and evening. In addition to presentations from Anne and myself, we were fortunate to have Michael Umbricht, the curator at Brown's historic Ladd Observatory, speak to the group about Wikipedia's GLAM (galleries, libraries, archives, and museums) efforts, including a project he spearheaded at the Ladd very recently.

I'm honestly not sure what I could possibly do to top the outcome of this edit-a-thon for next year's Ada Lovelace Day... That is a huge testament to everyone who helped out! Thank you again to all who spread the word about the importance of recognizing women's contributions to the STEM fields; who volunteered to do the gritty work of adding and improving Wikipedia articles; or who played a role behind the scenes. That includes, I might add, folks like Suw Charman-Anderson, who began Ada Lovelace Day, and Sarah Stierch, Emily Temple-Wood, and Gobonobo, who have done so much in recent years to promote women on the pages of Wikipedia. You all made this edit-a-thon a gargantuan success!

Friday, October 18, 2013

channeling ada: chien-shiung wu, courageous hero of physics

This post originally appeared on the Scientific American Guest Blog on October 15, 2013.

Today marks the 5th Ada Lovelace Day, an annual celebration of women who have made important contributions to the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). The event is named for Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, who is often credited as the first computer programmer. Since its inception in 2009, Ada Lovelace Day has grown from a purely blog-based affair to one marked by worldwide events including public lectures and Wikipedia edit-a-thons. This year, the Ada Lovelace Day organizers have also published a book of essays celebrating women in STEM entitled, A Passion For Science: Stories of Discovery and Invention. This blog post presents my chapter of that book. It describes the life and work of Chien-Shiung Wu, one of the most important physicists of the 20th century. Few outside of physics have ever heard of Wu, nor could they name any of her considerable contributions to science. I hope this essay will change that in some small way. –MW

It is the afternoon of May 31, 2012, and the skies above Liuhe in the Chinese province of Jiangsu are overcast but resplendent in silver and grey. A late-spring chill fills the air as a crowd of expectant locals and distinguished guests, including a number of representatives from the People’s Government, gathers in a circular stone-walled courtyard to honor a hometown legend. Scores of women, men and children who have made the journey here huddle in their well-worn jackets and coats as they wait for the memorial ceremony to begin.

Over the next two hours, attendees of this spirited congregation will take turns paying their respects with flowers, speeches, and songs to one of the most decorated and esteemed scientists of the 20th century. She has been dubbed the "First Lady of Physics" and the "Chinese Marie Curie" for her groundbreaking work in nuclear science—some of which, controversially, helped earn her male colleagues, but not her, a Nobel Prize. But here in Liuhe, where she was born exactly 100 years ago (and where she was buried after her death in 1997) she is known simply as Chien-Shiung: "Courageous Hero".

For one who faced so many uphill battles on the road to worldwide recognition and acclaim, physicist Chien-Shiung Wu more than lived up to the moniker her parents conferred upon her the day she came into the world in Liuhe, some 30 miles northwest of the port city of Shanghai. To begin with, Wu was born at a time when her homeland forbade girls from going to school. This was still an era when Chinese girls were expected to bind their feet and grow up to serve their male compatriots.

And yet, only a year before Wu’s birth, the Xinhai Revolution had overthrown the last Chinese dynasty and established the new Republic of China. With that massive uprising came a sea change of attitudes and a new generation of leaders eager to overturn the status quo. One of those leaders was Wu’s father, Zhongyi Wu. An engineer by training who believed strongly in equal rights for women, Zhongyi felt that the best thing he could do to help his daughter and her peers was to start a school for girls — the region’s first. With the aid of his wife, Fan Fuhua, who persuaded other families to let their young ones enroll, Zhongyi Wu opened the Mingde School for Girls and became its principal. And so, young Chien-Shiung, an inquisitive child from the get-go, was one of the first girls to obtain formal education in China.

But her father’s school could only take Wu so far. To continue learning, her only option was to join a girls' boarding facility 50 miles from home. She was all of 10 years old when she began classes at the Suzhou Girls' School, where she quickly came to discover the beauty and intrigue of physical science. It was, of course, not easy for a child so young to be away from her family, but her parents gave her strength. "Ignore the obstacles," her father told her. "Just put your head down and keep walking forward."

With such encouragement, Wu dedicated herself to the goal of studying math and science at the university level. She practically lived at school for seven full years, during which time she worked twice as hard as many of her peers so that she would have the skills required to earn a place in the physics department at the National Central University in Nanjing. Her commitment paid off: In 1930, she completed high school and began at NCU as a math major, transferring later into physics.

Wu graduated from NCU in 1934 as the school’s undisputed top student. But she once again found herself up against a wall: While the world was beginning to unravel the mysteries of the atom, a topic that intrigued her immensely, China had no graduate programs in physics. And so, at the suggestion of a mentor and with the financial backing of an uncle, Wu left for the United States on what she thought would be a brief detour in her journey to a scientific career in China. Little did she know that the course of her life would take a dramatic turn almost as soon as she landed on the California coast — nor that she would never again set eyes on the family she was leaving behind.

A life atomic

The United States of the 1930s saw the dawn of a new era in scientific inquiry. Atomic physics in particular took a major step forward in 1931, when future Nobel Prize-winner Ernest Lawrence, with the help of graduate student M Stanley Livingston, built the first cyclotron, a particle accelerator that uses magnetic fields to speed up and smash together atomic bits so that their interactions can be studied precisely.

Lawrence and his cyclotron were based at the University of California at Berkeley, which was fast becoming the world’s leading hotspot for the study of the atom. It was also a stone’s throw from San Francisco, the city where Chien-Shiung Wu landed in the late summer of 1936 after her ship had crossed the vast and turbulent Pacific on her way to graduate school. Wu’s ultimate destination was the University of Michigan, where she planned to study for her PhD, but with some down time before classes began, she decided to pay a visit to the Berkeley campus and its world-class physics department.

Only a few days into her California sojourn, Wu’s plans changed completely. For starters, she made the acquaintance of a fellow Chinese physics student named Luke Yuan, who would go on to become a permanent fixture in her life. Furthermore, after meeting with an obviously impressed Professor Lawrence, she was invited to pursue her graduate work at Berkeley. An opportunity to study under some of the legends of nuclear physics — which included not only Lawrence but also future Manhattan Project director Robert Oppenheimer — was a dream come true for Wu, who desperately wanted to learn as much as she could about the fundamental nature of matter. In an abrupt and daring move, she abandoned her plans to enroll at Michigan.

As a graduate student, "Miss Wu" was quite popular with her peers. She also became notorious for an unwavering work ethic that saw her toiling in the lab well into the small hours of morning on many a night. It was a reputation that would follow her for her entire professional career. "I have always felt," she later explained, "that in physics, and probably in other endeavors, too, you must have total commitment. It is not just a job, it is a way of life."

The truth is, however, that Wu had something of a difficult time adapting to American culture. English was a tricky language to master, and she would spend her adult life fumbling with certain pronunciations and grammatical rules. What’s more, she missed Chinese food and preferred the Chinese style of dress — so much so that she would continue to wear traditional high-necked qipao dresses well into her old age, oftentimes underneath a white lab coat.

Not quite a year after Wu’s arrival in California, international headlines reported devastating news: Japan had invaded China. Since landing in the U.S., Wu had remained in close contact with her parents, brothers and sister, but after the invasion, she wouldn’t hear another word from her family for eight long years. It was a trying time, as horrific updates from the front trickled overseas: By the end of 1937, some 42,000 civilians in her home province of Nanjing alone had been raped or murdered by Japanese troops. Four years later, the conflict would officially merge with World War II after Japan surprised the United States with its attack on Pearl Harbor.

With nothing she could do to help her loved ones, Wu attempted to tune out the war and focus instead on her work. She pursued her thesis under Lawrence and his assistant, another future Nobelist, Emilio Segrè. By 1940, Wu had completed her PhD and was considered an expert — "the authority," according to Robert Oppenheimer — in the new science of nuclear fission, the splitting of large atomic nuclei either by an induced nuclear reaction or by natural radioactive decay.

Ask Miss Wu

Wu stayed on at Berkeley as a research assistant for two years, solidifying her reputation as one of the most capable experimental physicists in the country. It was during this time that scientists led by physics icon Enrico Fermi were attempting, unsuccessfully, to produce the first large-scale, self-sustaining plutonium chain reaction at a research facility in Hanford, Washington. Fermi’s reactions to that point would run for a few hours but then sputter out without explanation.

Legend has it that someone suggested to Fermi that he "ask Miss Wu" for advice. He did, and Wu swiftly deduced that the problem was the buildup of xenon, a plutonium fission by-product. Xenon is an inert noble gas, but it turned out that the particular isotope produced in Fermi’s chain reaction had a tendency to capture stray neutrons.

Wu knew that the more xenon built up in the reaction chamber, the more neutrons would be captured, and the fewer neutrons would be available to induce future reactions. She was right, and Fermi’s team corrected the glitch in short order. Just like that, Wu had solved one of the trickiest problems in all of experimental physics.

In 1942, Wu and her new husband, Luke Yuan, moved to the East Coast. While many of her colleagues at Berkeley had been recruited for the war effort, Wu was not asked to join, despite her considerable knowledge of atomic physics. Neither was she asked to remain on at Berkeley in a more permanent role. It was an unfortunate reality that Wu encountered discrimination for being female at a time when most of the top American universities still refused to accept women, either as students or professors. During wartime, she also faced significant ethnic racism.

When Yuan obtained a position at RCA Laboratories in Princeton, New Jersey to work on the development of radar, Wu accepted an assistant professorship at Smith College, a women’s school in Northampton, Massachusetts. The scenario was far from ideal. The newlyweds, living 200 miles apart, only saw each other on weekends in New York City. And while Wu enjoyed teaching upstart female scientists like she had once been, she had very few opportunities to do what she relished most: solve problems in the lab.

It wasn’t long before Wu began to feel unhappy at Smith. When she vented her frustrations to her former advisor, Ernest Lawrence, he recommended her to a number of institutions in need of professors to pick up the slack while many of their staff members were on leave to help with the war. In short order, Wu was offered positions at eight prestigious universities, three of which still barred women from matriculating. She chose Princeton to be near Yuan and, in so doing, became that institution’s first female professor.

The Manhattan Project

Within a few months, Wu was recruited to join the Manhattan Project, the United States' cloak-and-dagger war research and development program. Many of her former professors and colleagues had already spent years working in secret to develop an atomic bomb. Now, Wu would apply her expertise in support of this goal at a New York City warehouse owned by Columbia University.

Contrary to public perception, a fair number of women — many hundreds, certainly, and possibly thousands — were involved in the technical reaches of the Manhattan Project. They were chemists, technicians, doctors, mathematicians, and more. But Wu was one of the very few women who contributed at the highest levels of physics research for this critical war effort.

Aside from her earlier help on Fermi’s plutonium problem, Wu’s work dealt mainly with the enrichment of uranium, the conversion of that element’s most abundant isotope, 238U, which is not fissionable, into the much rarer 235U, which is. In addition, she made major improvements to the Geiger counter, a device that any student of high school physics will recognize today as a common radiation detector.

On August 6, 1945, the work of Wu and thousands of others became known to the world when a uranium bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, with devastating results. The use of nuclear power, both for international arsenals and for peaceful electricity production, was only getting started. But World War II was about to become history.

The end of the war brought happy news and the turning of several new leaves, both professional and personal, for Chien-Shiung Wu. For starters, after not hearing from her family for eight agonizing years, she finally received word that everyone back home in China was well. Her father was even regarded as a war hero: He had engineered the Burma Road, a crucial transportation route used by the Allies to send supplies to Chinese troops.

Wu was also thrilled to learn that Columbia University wanted her to stay on as a senior researcher. The Morningside Heights neighborhood of Manhattan would in fact become her professional home for the next quarter of a century. It would soon become her personal home as well. After the birth of their son, Vincent, in 1947, Wu and Yuan moved to an apartment just a few blocks from Columbia’s physics building, Pupin Hall.

Beta decay

By this point in her career, Wu had earned a solid reputation as a highly skilled experimental physicist. With the war behind her, she needed a new problem to focus on. Wu chose wisely: Her investigations of beta decay — a mysterious type of radioactivity in which a large atomic nucleus emits energy and morphs into a new element — would help her reshape the world’s understanding of several fundamental atomic processes.

At the time, no one really understood how beta decay worked. Back in 1933, Enrico Fermi had devised what seemed like a viable theory for how an atom’s nucleus, composed of protons and neutrons, could shoot off an electron along with a neutrino and change into a completely different element in the process. But a number of physicists had tried to support Fermi’s theory with experimental data, and their results were muddled at best.

If there was one thing for which Chien-Shiung Wu was known, it was going the extra mile to design experiments in a way that unequivocally elucidated the mechanisms of a system. "She had a very, very strong sense that things had to be done right," Wu’s former graduate student, Leon Lidofsky, told author Sharon McGrayne. "If it was done sloppily, it wasn’t worth doing because the results weren’t reliable."

Wu was really a master engineer as much as she was a physicist. And, much like Star Trek’s Lieutenant Commander Montgomery "Scotty" Scott, she was considered a "miracle worker". In the case of beta decay, by carefully deconstructing what other physicists had done in their experiments, she noted a critical fact: The radiation sources they had worked with were of different thicknesses. This turned out to be the key problem with previous tests of Fermi’s decade-old theory. As soon as Wu controlled for the source thickness, her and others' results beautifully matched Fermi’s predictions, proving him right once and for all.

Wu continued to work on beta decay and related problems for the next decade. Somewhat incredulously, she was overlooked year after year for membership to the Columbia faculty because she hadn’t been assigned to teach. It wasn’t until 1952, eight years after she began her research for the Manhattan Project, that she was asked to join officially.

Two years later, following a lengthy naturalization process, Wu and Yuan became U.S. citizens. It was a decision they’d made after China had become a Communist state in 1949. Unfortunately, due to ongoing tensions between the U.S. and Chinese governments during the Cold War, Wu would not be able to visit her homeland again until the 1970s, by which time most of her immediate family members had died.

Meanwhile, her son, Vincent, was growing up fast. As in her Berkeley days, Wu continued to be a workaholic, so she relied heavily on a nanny for childcare needs. "If my mother was overly busy in her lab, I didn’t feel deprived," said Vincent, who went on to become a successful atomic physicist himself. "I spent most of my time in the company of friends, on school work, or interests that lots of kids of school age have. I always like to figure things out for myself, so it wasn’t like I needed my parents to do my homework for me."

Conservation of parity

In 1956, Wu would once again demonstrate her experimental mojo by achieving something very few people ever have: She disproved a fundamental "law" of nature. Many in the physics community believe she should have shared in the Nobel Prize that was later given for this most significant result of her career, but it did not play out that way.

The law in question is known as the conservation of parity, and it held sway in the physics community for nearly 40 years. Simply put, parity states that nature does not favor right or left. If you watch a girl throw a baseball through a mirror, the laws of physics will be the same both for the girl and for her mirror image.

As physicists in the mid-20th century began to discover a zoo of new subatomic particles, two of these, the theta meson and the tau meson, gave them fits. The theta and the tau shared a number of the same properties, including mass — a result that suggested they might actually be two forms of the same particle. But measurements also showed them decaying into two different parity states, one positive and one negative. If they were in fact the same particle, this would have to mean conservation of parity is not upheld in all cases. It was a troubling concept. At the time, parity was a bedrock law of physics; based on mathematical proofs, it was as well accepted as the laws of gravity. But had it really been proven?

At a scientific conference in April, 1956, renowned theoretical physicist Richard Feynman floated the idea to his colleagues: What if the parity rule were wrong? Fellow theoreticians Tsung Dao Lee of Columbia and Chen Ning Yang of the Advanced Institute for Study in Princeton began to wrestle with this problem. They soon came to believe it possible that parity might not be conserved in some nuclear reactions—specifically, those involving beta decay. But how to test it?

Lee approached Wu, an expert in beta decay, for advice. She suggested a specific approach using an isotope of the element cobalt as the best choice to test the hypothesis. After scouring the literature further, Lee and Yang published a paper stating that conservation of parity had not actually been proven in all cases, and suggesting some experiments to see what was really going on.

Wu immediately got to work. She was uniquely qualified to design and carry out this test, and she wanted to be the first to do it. "Nobody believed it would happen and, because it was so difficult, they wouldn’t tackle it," Yang later told McGrayne. "Wu had the perception that right-left symmetry was so basic and fundamental that it should be tested."

Wu dropped everything for six months — including sleep, meals, and a long-planned trip to China with her husband — to pursue the parity experiment. Even before Lee and Yang’s article was published, she had lined up a team of physicists to assist in carrying it out using special, super-cooling equipment at the National Bureau of Standards (NBS) in Washington, DC. Wu began commuting back and forth between New York and Washington to check on the experiment, while the NBS team worked around the clock to prepare it for its first trials.

Finally, two days after Christmas, the team was ready. Whatever the outcome, Wu and her colleagues knew their results would mark an important moment in the history of nuclear physics. They flipped a few switches, and the experiment was officially underway.

The key factor the team was looking for was the direction in which electrons flung themselves from cobalt nuclei as the nuclei went through beta decay. If conservation of parity were conserved, they would see electrons ejected symmetrically in multiple directions. But if parity were not conserved, the electrons would fly off primarily in one direction. The team’s first results were clear: Electrons were not ejecting symmetrically. In the top left corner of the notepad where they’d jotted their data, team member Ralph Hudson wrote, with triumphant emphasis, "PARITY NOT CONSERVED!"

Wu and her colleagues checked and re-checked their results many times over the next fortnight. At last, around 2 a.m. on January 9, 1957, the team broke out a bottle of champagne. The tau meson and the theta meson were the same particle — now known as the K meson — after all. As Wu later told McGrayne, "These are moments of exaltation and ecstasy. A glimpse of this wonder can be the reward of a lifetime."

The next day, The New York Times heralded the "shattering of a fundamental concept of nuclear physics" on its front page. It was an unforgettable moment for Wu, but also a stark reminder that what we consider "laws" of nature are not necessarily irrefutable in the eyes of science. As fellow physicist Richard Feynman once famously quipped, "If it disagrees with experiment, it’s wrong. In that simple statement is the key to science."

Many honors, but no Nobel

The parity results were so spectacular that they garnered a Nobel Prize that very same year, but not for Wu. In October 1957, the Nobel Committee announced that Lee and Yang had won the physics prize "for their penetrating investigation of the so-called parity laws which has led to important discoveries regarding the elementary particles."

Wu was bitterly disappointed. It was not the first time theorists would win a Nobel while a key experimentalist who did the crucial work to back them up did not. When Wu’s own thesis advisor, Ernest Lawrence, won in 1939 for the invention of the cyclotron, his graduate student, M Stanley Livingston, who did much of the labor translating Lawrence’s vision into a physical, working machine, got nothing.

"As an experimentalist, my natural tendency is to think it a shame that the experimental team was not included in the prize," Wu’s son, whose work at the Los Alamos National Laboratory focuses on neutron physics, admitted recently. "Beyond that, it would be presumptive to have a specific reaction without knowing the internal reasoning of the award committee. I personally think that if she had been included, it wouldn’t have been undeserved. But I don’t harbor any resentment, as she won many other awards for her work."

Wu did indeed rack up an enviable list of honors, awards, and firsts, even before her official retirement from Columbia in 1981. Perhaps this was because she did not slow down after her momentous feat on conservation of parity. Quite to the contrary, over the following two decades, she would carry out many additional ground-breaking investigations, not only in the area of beta decay but also in the fields of short-lived "exotic" atoms and even the biophysics of sickle cell anemia.

Among Wu’s most distinguished honors were: The Comstock Award of the National Academy of Sciences in 1964; the Tom Bonner Prize of the American Physical Society in 1974 (the same year she was named the society’s first female president); the U.S. National Medal of Science in 1975; the Wolf Prize in Physics in 1978; selection as Italy’s Woman of the Year in 1981; and induction into the United States' National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1998. In 1990 she even became the first living scientist to have an asteroid named after her: Asteroid 2752 Wu Chien-Shiung.

Wu’s final lasting contribution came about after her retirement, when she took time to travel the world and speak to audiences of her successes in the lab and of being a woman in a male-dominated field. Just as her father had been many years before, Wu was a champion of women through-and-through. She was not afraid to speak her mind about the miles yet to go before women would achieve any semblance of equal representation in math and the physical sciences. And she fervently hoped that the impressionable girls and young women she spoke to on her travels might take inspiration from her life story and go on to pursue careers in the STEM fields.

That remarkable story came to an end on February 16, 1997, when Wu died of a stroke at the age of 84. In addition to her husband, her son, and a granddaughter, she left behind an enormous legacy. William Havens, a longtime colleague at Columbia, remarked: "She was the world’s distinguished woman physicist of her time." Tsung-Dao Lee, with whom she remained friendly until the end, spelled it plainly: "CS Wu was one of the giants of physics."

Legacy of a courageous hero

Chien-Shiung Wu made a life and a name and for herself in the United States, but it is here, in her hometown of Liuhe, that Wu chose to be buried alongside her husband, Luke, who died in 2003. The circular courtyard where their remains now rest is part of the Mingde School that Wu’s father began nearly a century ago so that his daughter could begin a proper education. It is heart-warming to imagine how proud he would have been to witness the rows and rows of children who now stand in silence, a single yellow flower in hand, as they honor Madame Wu, one of the most influential nuclear physicists of the 20th century, on what would have been her 100th birthday.

Some 160 miles west of here, on the campus of Nanjing University (formerly National Central University), a wonderful museum invites visitors to learn about the incomparable Chien-Shiung Wu. Lining the walls are annotated framed photos of Wu with dignitaries, with colleagues in the lab, and joking around with friends. Thanks to the careful planning of Luke Yuan, who donated many of his wife’s possessions after her death, the gallery feels like a presidential library, with physical awards, honorary degrees, and even a re-created office space with Wu’s books giving visitors a genuine feel for her life and accomplishments.

In a quiet corner of the museum, the words of one Courageous Hero appear as a final remembrance of her lasting legacy: "Science is not static but is dynamic and ever-improving. It is the courage to doubt what has long been believed and the incessant search for verification and proof that pushes the wheels of science forward."

Images: Linocut of Chien-Shiung Wu by Ele Willoughby (used with permission). LEGO minifigure and photo by the author. All other photos are in the public domain, as posted by The Smithsonian on Flickr.

Further reading:

Benczer-Koller, N (2009), Chien-Shiung Wu 1912 – 1997, National Academy of Sciences.

Cooperman, SH (2004), Chien-Shiung Wu: Pioneering Physicist and Atomic Researcher, New York, NY: Rosen Central.

Hammond, R (2010), Chien-Shiung Wu: Pioneering Nuclear Physicist, New York, NY: Chelsea House.

McGrayne, SB (1998), Nobel Prize Women in Science: Their Lives, Struggles, and Momentous Discoveries, Washington, DC: Joseph Henry Press.

Take a virtual tour of the Wu museum at Nanjing University.