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!

Fireflies glow-in-the-dark Linocut
Fireflies glow-in-the-dark Linocut
minouette
$25.00 USD
Red-legged Grasshopper Mini Linocut
Red-legged Grasshopper Mini Linocut
minouette
$20.00 USD
Polar Bear and Aurora Linocut - Handprinted Arctic Scene with Northern Lights and Polar Bear Print
Polar Bear and Aurora Linocut - Handprinted Arctic Scene with Northern Lights and Polar Bear Print
minouette
$32.00 USD
Linocut portrait of biochemist Dr. Maud Menten, pioneer of enzyme kinetics, histochemistry, electrophoresis, adventurer and artist
Linocut portrait of biochemist Dr. Maud Menten, pioneer of enzyme kinetics, histochemistry, electrophoresis, adventurer and artist
minouette
$40.00 USD
Unicorn Amongst Umbrellas XXXV- Multimedia - Lino Block Print Unicorn with Collaged Japanese Papers & Ephemera Parasols on Black Washi
Unicorn Amongst Umbrellas XXXV- Multimedia - Lino Block Print Unicorn with Collaged Japanese Papers & Ephemera Parasols on Black Washi
minouette
$45.00 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
Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier and Marie-Anne Paulze Lavoisier as the Lovers Tarot - Founders of Modern Chemistry, History of Science, Biology
Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier and Marie-Anne Paulze Lavoisier as the Lovers Tarot - Founders of Modern Chemistry, History of Science, Biology
minouette
$30.00 USD
Vixen in the Snow Linocut - Winter Scene with Fox or Vixen in the Snow Lino Block Print
Vixen in the Snow Linocut - Winter Scene with Fox or Vixen in the Snow Lino Block Print
minouette
$34.00 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
Dog-Day Cicada Linocut - Mini Lino Block Print of Tibicen canicularis, dogday harvestfly or dog-day cicada on Japanese paper
Dog-Day Cicada Linocut - Mini Lino Block Print of Tibicen canicularis, dogday harvestfly or dog-day cicada on Japanese paper
minouette
$20.00 USD
Iguana - First Edition Lino Block Print - Linocut Iguana Print in Green on Yellow Japanese Paper, Natural History, Lizard
Iguana - First Edition Lino Block Print - Linocut Iguana Print in Green on Yellow Japanese Paper, Natural History, Lizard
minouette
$18.00 USD
Blue Orchard Mason Bee, Osmia Lignaria Linocut - Pollinator Bee Biodiversity Print Collection Lino Block Print
Blue Orchard Mason Bee, Osmia Lignaria Linocut - Pollinator Bee Biodiversity Print Collection Lino Block Print
minouette
$30.00 USD
Leafcutter Bee, Megachile Relativa Linocut, Lino Block Print Bee Biodiversity Collection, Leafcutter Bee
Leafcutter Bee, Megachile Relativa Linocut, Lino Block Print Bee Biodiversity Collection, Leafcutter Bee
minouette
$27.00 USD
Linocut portrait of genetist & cytologist Irene Ayako Uchida, who discovered risk of maternal x-rays on offspring, Down syndrom expert
Linocut portrait of genetist & cytologist Irene Ayako Uchida, who discovered risk of maternal x-rays on offspring, Down syndrom expert
minouette
$35.00 USD
Honeybee Dance Linocut - Pollinator Bee Biodiversity Print Collection - Dance of the Honey bee Lino Block Print
Honeybee Dance Linocut - Pollinator Bee Biodiversity Print Collection - Dance of the Honey bee Lino Block Print
minouette
$30.00 USD
Send A Raven Linocut - Gothic text with Raven print - Black, White and Red
Send A Raven Linocut - Gothic text with Raven print - Black, White and Red
minouette
$34.00 USD
Mmm... Coffee Linocut with Caffeine Molecule
Mmm... Coffee Linocut with Caffeine Molecule
minouette
$25.00 USD
Pink and Yellow Big Head Torosaurus or Triceratops Stuffie
Pink and Yellow Big Head Torosaurus or Triceratops Stuffie
minouette
$25.00 USD
Charles David Keeling and the Keeling Curve of CO2 in Atmosphere - History of Science Print Portrait Climate Change Atmospheric Chemistry
Charles David Keeling and the Keeling Curve of CO2 in Atmosphere - History of Science Print Portrait Climate Change Atmospheric Chemistry
minouette
$35.00 USD
Merit Ptah, Chief Physician in Ancient Egypt, Portrait of the Earliest Known Woman in STEM, History of Medicine
Merit Ptah, Chief Physician in Ancient Egypt, Portrait of the Earliest Known Woman in STEM, History of Medicine
minouette
$40.00 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
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
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
Linocut portrait of pioneering nuclear physicist Harriet Brooks, woman in STEM collection, history of science print
Linocut portrait of pioneering nuclear physicist Harriet Brooks, woman in STEM collection, history of science print
minouette
$40.00 USD
Pharmaceutical chemist Alice Ball who developed the first effective treatment for leprosy, chaulmoogra branch, chemical reaction
Pharmaceutical chemist Alice Ball who developed the first effective treatment for leprosy, chaulmoogra branch, chemical reaction
minouette
$35.00 USD
Seahorse Pillow- Cynthia
Seahorse Pillow- Cynthia
minouette
$25.00 USD
Astronomer Henrietta Swan Leavitt Linocut -1st Edition Lino Block Print Portrait, Woman in STEM, Astronomy, History, Henrietta Swan Leavitt
Astronomer Henrietta Swan Leavitt Linocut -1st Edition Lino Block Print Portrait, Woman in STEM, Astronomy, History, Henrietta Swan Leavitt
minouette
$35.00 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
Florence Nightingale Linocut in Blue, Handprinted Portrait of Nursing and Statistics Pioneer Woman in Science Florence Nightingale
Florence Nightingale Linocut in Blue, Handprinted Portrait of Nursing and Statistics Pioneer Woman in Science Florence Nightingale
minouette
$40.00 USD
Mathematician, aeronautical engineer and Cherokee Hidden Figure of the Space Race Mary Golda Ross Linocut Portrait
Mathematician, aeronautical engineer and Cherokee Hidden Figure of the Space Race Mary Golda Ross Linocut Portrait
minouette
$35.00 USD
Frog and Lily Linocut - Handmade Print - Leopard Frog with Water Lily Lotus Flower in Green
Frog and Lily Linocut - Handmade Print - Leopard Frog with Water Lily Lotus Flower in Green
minouette
$20.00 USD

42 comments

Sign in to add your own