Shop Etsy

Short Stories: Madame Wu

Jul 16, 2012

by minouette

Etsy.com handmade and vintage goods

Here at Etsy, we believe that the story behind an object is often just as fascinating as the object itself. Short Stories is our series dedicated to telling the tales behind extraordinary pieces found or created by Etsy sellers. 

Today, Ele shares the history of the fascinating woman whose beautiful experiment inspired this print

I’m actually a physicist by training — I like to say I’m a marine geophysicist by day and printmaker by night (though right now, I’ve been focused more on art-making than scientific research). I learned about the violation of parity as a student but I didn’t really discover Madame Wu until I was a teaching assistant for a course intended to teach physics to arts majors. Hers was one of the most beautiful experiments in the entire history of physics.

Chien-Shiung Wu (1912-1997) was a Chinese-born American physicist, whose nicknames included the “First Lady of Physics,” “Chinese Marie Curie,” and “Madame Wu.” She came up with an elegant experiment to test whether the weak force conserves parity (whether beta decay would be the same if reflected in the mirror).

In 1956, theoretical physicists Tsung Dao Lee and Chen Ning Yang suggested that “Law of Conservation of Parity” might not be the same “through the looking glass.” This was hard to believe, as the laws of physics are the same in the mirror as for anything else.

For example, face a friend, as in the mirror. If you drop a pencil from your right hand, and your friend mirrors you and drops a pencil with his or her left, the pencils will fall at the same rate. This is because parity is conserved by the force of gravity — as it is with the electromagnetic force and even the strong (nuclear) force within atomic nuclei. Lee and Yang pointed out that no one had checked to make sure that the weak force, which controls beta decay in radioactive materials, also conserves parity. Lee convinced the brilliant experimentalist Madame Wu to test this.

Madame Wu performed a subtle and technically difficult experiment using Cobalt-60 (shown as the cobalt blue sphere in the box), which is radioactive. Its neutrons spontaneously give off electrons and become protons, and the electrons are the tiny blue dots. On the left, we see the Cobalt-60 in an electromagnet (a wire wrapped metal horseshoe with a source of power). Because of the spiral-wrap of the wire, we know that the north pole of the magnet will be on the bottom (you can figure this out by mimicking the curl of the wire with the fingers of your right hand and look at the direction your thumb points). It turns out that the emitted electrons are given off preferentially towards the north pole.

Next, she reversed the set-up as in the mirror. On the right you see the horseshoe and wire spiral reflected. If you use your right hand to check the direction of the magnet field, you’ll see that it is the opposite way; the north pole is now on top. It turns out that the electrons are preferentially emitted upwards toward the north pole. Thus, beta decay is not the same in the mirror! Madame Wu showed that a law of physics did not hold. This staggering result shocked the physics world. Lee and Yang won the Nobel prize for their theoretical work. Many physicists thought Madame Wu should have been included in this win.

In my print, I show Madame Wu in her lab and a schematic diagram of her beautiful experiment in the box. On the right I show her reflection, as in the mirror, and in the box I show the mirror reflection of the experimental set-up and the shocking result: that the reaction is not the mirror opposite.

Madame Wu won many honours for her incredible career. She took part in the Manhattan Project (Wikipedia states she is believed to be the only Chinese person to do so) and literally wrote the book on beta decay. Among other things, she was the first living scientist to have an asteroid named after her. And I bet you hadn’t heard of her! I’m trying to redress that.

More Short Stories

Have you created or come across an object with an extraordinary story that needs to be told? Email us!

Antonie van Leeuwenhoek Portrait with his Microscope and Animacules Lino Block Print History of Science Microbiology
Antonie van Leeuwenhoek Portrait with his Microscope and Animacules Lino Block Print History of Science Microbiology
minouette
$35.00 USD
Maria Sibylla Merian Linocut Portrait of the Entomologist and Scientific Illustrator, History of Science, Lino Block Print Women in Science
Maria Sibylla Merian Linocut Portrait of the Entomologist and Scientific Illustrator, History of Science, Lino Block Print Women in Science
minouette
$39.00 USD
Darwin on Galapagos - 2nd Edition Lino Block Print Scientist Portrait, Charles Darwin, Galapagos Tortoise, History of Science, Evolution
Darwin on Galapagos - 2nd Edition Lino Block Print Scientist Portrait, Charles Darwin, Galapagos Tortoise, History of Science, Evolution
minouette
$25.00 USD
Complete set of 13 linocuts of Canadian Provinces and Territories with their Symbols
Complete set of 13 linocuts of Canadian Provinces and Territories with their Symbols
minouette
$350.00 USD
A Nest of Rabbits Linocut - Terms of Venery, Collective Noun for Animals, Typography, Lino Block Print Cute Rabbits, Bunnies, Hares
A Nest of Rabbits Linocut - Terms of Venery, Collective Noun for Animals, Typography, Lino Block Print Cute Rabbits, Bunnies, Hares
minouette
$29.00 USD
Tu-z - The Rabbit, Linocut, 4th in Chinese Zodiac, Limited Edition - Black and White Lino Block Print Rabbit, Bunny, Hare, Chinese Character
Tu-z - The Rabbit, Linocut, 4th in Chinese Zodiac, Limited Edition - Black and White Lino Block Print Rabbit, Bunny, Hare, Chinese Character
minouette
$20.00 USD
Gong-ji - The Rooster - Linocut, 10th in Chinese Zodiac - Limited Edition - Black and White Lino Block Print Rooster with Chinese Character
Gong-ji - The Rooster - Linocut, 10th in Chinese Zodiac - Limited Edition - Black and White Lino Block Print Rooster with Chinese Character
minouette
$28.00 USD
Little Boat, Big Ocean Woodblock Print, Hand Carved Japanese Style 4 Colour Wood Block Print of Giant Octopus & Paper Boat
Little Boat, Big Ocean Woodblock Print, Hand Carved Japanese Style 4 Colour Wood Block Print of Giant Octopus & Paper Boat
minouette
$180.00 USD
Teal on White Big Head Torosaurus or Triceratops Stuffie with Blue Dinosaur Print Backing
Teal on White Big Head Torosaurus or Triceratops Stuffie with Blue Dinosaur Print Backing
minouette
$25.00 USD
Linocut portrait of physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, History of Science Lino Block Portrait, Quantum Physics, Astrophysics, Black Hole
Linocut portrait of physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, History of Science Lino Block Portrait, Quantum Physics, Astrophysics, Black Hole
minouette
$35.00 USD
Manitoba, bison and crocus linocut - Lino Block Print Maps of Canadian Provinces & Territories with Symbols, Manitoba, Bison, Crocus
Manitoba, bison and crocus linocut - Lino Block Print Maps of Canadian Provinces & Territories with Symbols, Manitoba, Bison, Crocus
minouette
$27.00 USD
Astronaut Mae Jemison Linocut Portrait, Women in STEM, Lino Block Print Scientist Portrait, NASA and American Astronaut Mae Jemison, Earth
Astronaut Mae Jemison Linocut Portrait, Women in STEM, Lino Block Print Scientist Portrait, NASA and American Astronaut Mae Jemison, Earth
minouette
$35.00 USD
Pink and Yellow Big Head Torosaurus or Triceratops Stuffie
Pink and Yellow Big Head Torosaurus or Triceratops Stuffie
minouette
$25.00 USD
Orange and Red Big Head Beige Torosaurus or Triceratops Stuffie
Orange and Red Big Head Beige Torosaurus or Triceratops Stuffie
minouette
$25.00 USD
Turtles, All The Way Down - Linocut Block Print about Turtles Supporting the Earth - Legendary Cosmology - Unmoved Mover Paradox
Turtles, All The Way Down - Linocut Block Print about Turtles Supporting the Earth - Legendary Cosmology - Unmoved Mover Paradox
minouette
$50.00 USD
Gregor Mendel with his Pea Plants Linocut Portrait Founder of Modern Genetics Lino Block Print History of Science Biology Botany Heredity
Gregor Mendel with his Pea Plants Linocut Portrait Founder of Modern Genetics Lino Block Print History of Science Biology Botany Heredity
minouette
$35.00 USD
Laplace's Demon Linocut - History of Science, Imaginary Friend of Science Collection, Pierre-Simon Laplace, Mathematics Physics Daemon Space
Laplace's Demon Linocut - History of Science, Imaginary Friend of Science Collection, Pierre-Simon Laplace, Mathematics Physics Daemon Space
minouette
$30.00 USD
Descartes Demon Linocut - Imaginary Friends of Science Collection - René Descartes Daemon with Brain in Vat Philosophy History Science Print
Descartes Demon Linocut - Imaginary Friends of Science Collection - René Descartes Daemon with Brain in Vat Philosophy History Science Print
minouette
$30.00 USD
Maxwell's Demon Linocut - Imaginary Friends of Science Lino Block Print Collection - History of Science, James Clerk Maxwell, Physics Daemon
Maxwell's Demon Linocut - Imaginary Friends of Science Lino Block Print Collection - History of Science, James Clerk Maxwell, Physics Daemon
minouette
$30.00 USD
Blue-green Euoplocephalus Hard-headed Vegetarian Dinosaur Stuffie Backed with Dinosaur Print Fabric
Blue-green Euoplocephalus Hard-headed Vegetarian Dinosaur Stuffie Backed with Dinosaur Print Fabric
minouette
$25.00 USD
Ma - The Horse - Linocut, 7th in Chinese Zodiac- Limited Edition - Black and White Animals of the Chinese Zodiac Lino Block Print Horse
Ma - The Horse - Linocut, 7th in Chinese Zodiac- Limited Edition - Black and White Animals of the Chinese Zodiac Lino Block Print Horse
minouette
$32.00 USD
Mercator the Map Maker Linocut - History of Science, Cartography, Geography, Lino Block Print Portrait with Map of Gerardus Mercator
Mercator the Map Maker Linocut - History of Science, Cartography, Geography, Lino Block Print Portrait with Map of Gerardus Mercator
minouette
$40.00 USD
Horse Latitudes Linocut - Earth Science, Oceanography, Geography, Earth with Horses, Horse Latitude Linocut, Map Art, Typography
Horse Latitudes Linocut - Earth Science, Oceanography, Geography, Earth with Horses, Horse Latitude Linocut, Map Art, Typography
minouette
$30.00 USD
Yukon, Raven and Fireweed Linocut - Lino Block Print Maps of Canadian Provinces, Territories & Symbols, Yukon, Raven, Fireweed, Map Art
Yukon, Raven and Fireweed Linocut - Lino Block Print Maps of Canadian Provinces, Territories & Symbols, Yukon, Raven, Fireweed, Map Art
minouette
$27.00 USD
The Stork Deliverying Baby Linocut, Nursery Art, Stork with Baby Lino Block Print, Baby Shower Gift
The Stork Deliverying Baby Linocut, Nursery Art, Stork with Baby Lino Block Print, Baby Shower Gift
minouette
$25.00 USD
Immortal Jellyfish: I Wanna Live Forever! Handprinted Lino Block Print of Turritopsis Dohrnii Medusa Called Immortal Jellyfish, Art Linocut
Immortal Jellyfish: I Wanna Live Forever! Handprinted Lino Block Print of Turritopsis Dohrnii Medusa Called Immortal Jellyfish, Art Linocut
minouette
$30.00 USD
Tooth Fairy linocut - Lino Block Print of a Winged Tooth Fairy, Children's Art, Fairytale, Teeth
Tooth Fairy linocut - Lino Block Print of a Winged Tooth Fairy, Children's Art, Fairytale, Teeth
minouette
$22.00 USD
Mary Anning and Fossil Cliffs Linocut History of Paleontology, Women in STEM, Lino Block Print Scientist Portrait, Science, Dinosaur Fossils
Mary Anning and Fossil Cliffs Linocut History of Paleontology, Women in STEM, Lino Block Print Scientist Portrait, Science, Dinosaur Fossils
minouette
$35.00 USD
A Flamboyance of Flamingos Linocut, Terms of Venery, Collective Nouns for Birds Lino Block Print Collection, A Flamboyance of Pink Flamingos
A Flamboyance of Flamingos Linocut, Terms of Venery, Collective Nouns for Birds Lino Block Print Collection, A Flamboyance of Pink Flamingos
minouette
$30.00 USD
Seahorse Pillow- Cynthia
Seahorse Pillow- Cynthia
minouette
$25.00 USD
Turquoise on Blue Euoplocephalus Hard-headed Vegetarian Dinosaur Stuffie Backed with Dinosaur Print Fabric
Turquoise on Blue Euoplocephalus Hard-headed Vegetarian Dinosaur Stuffie Backed with Dinosaur Print Fabric
minouette
$25.00 USD
The Batbearoo Mini Print, a linocut imaginary marsupial bear with bat wings, Crypotozoology, Imaginary Zoology Collection Tiny Lino Print
The Batbearoo Mini Print, a linocut imaginary marsupial bear with bat wings, Crypotozoology, Imaginary Zoology Collection Tiny Lino Print
minouette
$25.00 USD
Unicorn Amongst Umbrellas XXII- Multimedia - Lino Block Print Unicorn with Collaged Japanese Paper Parasols
Unicorn Amongst Umbrellas XXII- Multimedia - Lino Block Print Unicorn with Collaged Japanese Paper Parasols
minouette
$45.00 USD
Linocut Portrait of Caroline Herschel, Pioneering Woman in Astronomy with Comets - Portrait Astronomer Caroline Herschel Woman in STEM Print
Linocut Portrait of Caroline Herschel, Pioneering Woman in Astronomy with Comets - Portrait Astronomer Caroline Herschel Woman in STEM Print
minouette
$28.00 USD
Io Myth and Moon Screenprint - Silkscreen Print of Io, Jupiter's Moon and the Greek Mythical Io, Nymph as Cow with Clouds, Astronomy + Myth
Io Myth and Moon Screenprint - Silkscreen Print of Io, Jupiter's Moon and the Greek Mythical Io, Nymph as Cow with Clouds, Astronomy + Myth
minouette
$30.00 USD
Linocut Tardigrade, Invincible Microscopic Water Bear, Moss Piglet, Handprinted Mighty Micro-Animal Lino Block Print
Linocut Tardigrade, Invincible Microscopic Water Bear, Moss Piglet, Handprinted Mighty Micro-Animal Lino Block Print
minouette
$25.00 USD

42 comments

Sign in to add your own