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Married Physicist Couples May 5, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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Joseph and Maria Goeppert Mayer; AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives

I’ve been away from the blog for some time now, which mainly has to do with the fact that I just got married.  Thus activities surrounding this event went to the top of my agenda, bumping ordinary work down into the space usually occupied by supplying content to EWP.  This post is inspired by my recent bout of marriage on the brain.

A bit of background: I nabbed some funding for putting together ACAP on my first try, but barely.  One thing that almost derailed the proposal was some anxiety that this would be yet another dead-white-male hall of fame.  That outcome is sort of inevitable: to this day, the physics profession suffers from a pronounced gender skew, albeit not so bad as in prior decades.  If one is to study physics history, one is going to end up studying a lot of white males, unless one specifically sets out to do a sociological or anthropological analysis of gender and minority relations in the profession.

I argued at the time that ACAP’s scale and reach to the present would almost certainly allow it to include women and minorities with whom professional historians rarely bother, but who have been well-known to physicists themselves.  This turned out to be correct.  On account of the historical bias of the physics profession against female and minority participation, only a small percentage of people in ACAP are women and minorities, but they are nevertheless there, and this allows the beginnings of a conversation about their history in the American physics profession—with certain important caveats, most notably that ACAP can analyze only the careers of those who have made it to the upper echelons of professional recognition.  ACAP must not be taken as a reliable sample from which to draw general conclusions about “women and minorities in physics”, since professional advancement has been one of the greatest challenges facing these groups in the profession.

One notable trend that we can look at is the prevalence of physicist married couples in the history of physics. (more…)

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…)