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Primer: Chien-Shiung Wu July 8, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Primer.
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Chien-Shiung Wu with Ernest Ambler, from the LIFE photo archive.  Photograph by James Burke.

Chien-Shiung Wu (1912-1997) was born in Shanghai, China and raised nearby in Jiangsu Province.  Her father had been trained as an engineer and was the director of the Ming De School for Girls at the time of her birth.  Wu finished her education at her father’s school in 1922 and went on to the Soochow School for Girls in Nanjing, where she studied physics and mathematics on her own while undertaking a more classical formal education.  In 1930 she registered at the National Central University in Nanjing, and received a degree in physics in 1934.  She was also active in the student protests there that followed the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931.

Wu did x-ray crystallography research for two years at the Chinese National Academy of Sciences in Shanghai.  In 1936 she sailed to America with financial support from an uncle in order to undertake graduate education at the University of Michigan.  On her way, she stopped and visited the University of California at Berkeley, where she met Ernest Lawrence (and her future husband Luke Yuan).  On learning that Michigan did not allow women in its student union, she opted to pursue her PhD at Berkeley instead, receiving it in 1940 for work on nuclear decay (more…)

Primer: Leo Szilard June 11, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Primer.
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Photo Credit: Digital Photo Archive, Department of Energy (DOE), courtesy AIP Emilio Segre Visual Archives

Photo Credit: Digital Photo Archive, Department of Energy (DOE), courtesy AIP Emilio Segre Visual Archives

I had another post planned for today, but got waylaid when, working on my physicist web project, I had to piece together the career of Leo Szilard.  The idea behind the project is to gather skeletal information on physicists to help trace career paths, but this doesn’t work very well for Szilard, who was a sort of a physicist vagabond who seems to have cobbled his career together out of temporary and part-time positions, meager patent revenues, and a penchant for a modest existence.  So, I’ve been spending my day immersed in journalist and policy analyst William Lanouette’s Genius in the Shadows: A Biography of Leo Szilard (1992), trying to sift out what I can.  Since I’m learning more than enough for a post, I thought I’d just write something up on him while I was at it.

Szilard, the son of an engineer, was born Leo Spitz in Budapest, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in 1898.  (His family changed their name in 1900.)  Out of a sense of practicality, Szilard aimed to become an engineer himself, enrolling in the Technical Institute of Budapest, but was drafted into the army during World War I.  After the war, political conditions became difficult for Szilard, on account of his Jewish heritage, and he moved from Hungary to Berlin to continue his education there, first at the Technical Institute and then the University.  In Berlin, Szilard decided to indulge his intellect and study physics in an environment rich in the some of the greatest talent of his day, notably Max von Laue and Albert Einstein.  Submitting a manuscript detailing a new conceptualization of thermodynamics that impressed both these men (and was decades later recognized as a contribution to the integration of thermodynamics and information theory), he was granted his doctorate in 1922.

The key characteristic of Szilard’s work and career was his restless and penetrating intellect, which accepted no boundaries and precious little institutional restraint, and drove him to travel constantly.  He devoted his thinking to (more…)