Discovering Dr. Wu

The world reveres Chien-Shiung Wu as a groundbreaking nuclear physicist who made a startling find 65 years ago. But to me, she was Grandma — and I long to know more about her private universe.

Illustration of Dr. Wu by Jing Li (Video: Jing Li for The Washington Post)

Someone pulled a cord and yellow fabric billowed down, revealing a three-story-tall statue of my grandmother.

It was May 2012, in a city just north of Shanghai. And there she loomed, a sculptor’s rendition of Chien-Shiung Wu, the pioneering, internationally renowned nuclear physicist, who left China in 1936 to pursue her education in the United States, and, in a lot of ways, resisted looking back. She disproved what was thought to be a fundamental law of nature and raised my dad in Manhattan and taught me how to use chopsticks as a kid.

In life, she stood maybe all of 5 feet, and shrinking with age. Now she was preserved as a young version of herself, seated atop an actual pedestal, draped in academic robes like the ones I’d only seen in photographs of her winning 16 honorary doctorates of science, including the first given to a woman at Princeton University. It took me a moment to comprehend that the statue was supposed to be her. So big, and so green — the same minty hue as the Statue of Liberty.

My parents and I had flown to Shanghai, where my grandmother had been born 100 years earlier in 1912, and then drove an hour north to where she was raised in a fishing village called Liuhe, built where the Yangtze River flows out to the Yellow Sea.

The local government had organized a centennial jubilee, which we experienced in a jet-lagged haze. I hadn’t expected the police-escorted motorcade, or the banners bearing her name strung across grand avenues. Or the raucous banquets with Communist Party officials every night, the kind with free-flowing mao-tai — a clear, fermented sorghum liquor that tastes like sweet turpentine. At such events the most sociable men, like my uncle, Su Wu, will go around to every table, offering a toast. Then you have to go around to every table and do the same, toast after toast, secretly pouring water into every other glass so you can get through them all without falling down drunk.

Visits to China have always been a chaotic parade of relatives I didn’t know I had and a cacophony of a familiar language that my American-born father and I have heard all our lives, but can rarely understand. We were just going where we were told.

The morning of the statue reveal, our relatives guided my father, Vincent Yuan (Chien-Shiung Wu’s only child), my mother, Lucy Lyon, and me (the only grandchild) to the front of a sea of foldout chairs covered in red and yellow fabric. Somewhere amid many untranslated speeches in Chinese, I heard my father’s name, then mine. My uncle gestured frantically for us to stand up and wave and soak in the applause. When my mother, who is blond-haired and blue-eyed and ethnically but not religiously Jewish, was introduced and stood up, the crowd of thousands gasped in unison.

Trips to China to honor my grandmother were something we’d done before: In Nanjing, where she was an undergraduate, there’s a memorial hall. Another statue of her, in bronze, stands in Shanghai. On the centennial trip, we attended the opening of a museum that showcases her academic papers as well as the slit-legged qipao dresses she wore under her white labcoats. In her hometown, we visited classrooms at the school her father founded — mainly so his daughter could get an education. The children there sang songs about her.

Chinese hero worship is impressive to witness — and surreal to experience when your grandmother is the one being revered. In New York, she had walked unnoticed between her laboratory at Columbia University and the nearby rent-stabilized faculty apartment she shared with my grandfather, who was a particle physicist, and my father, who would become a nuclear physicist.

It is easy to lose the real person in so much veneration. I am a keeper of my grandmother’s memory, but an imperfect one. The work that made her famous changed scientists’ understanding of the universe. It inspired countless girls and women, who contact me to this day.

The images I flash back to, though, are from my childhood: dancing around her in a polka-dot party dress she’d given me, or rushing downstairs with her to see Christmas carolers on Claremont Avenue. I am nearly the age she was when she made her great discovery. I’ve lived twice as many years as I knew her.

Like many children who come from families of immigrants — or from families of scientists, or families who lived through war and destruction — I didn’t realize how little I knew of her life until it was too late to ask. Memories merge. Our family stories have been retold so many times in official accounts and biographies that it’s unclear which versions are true. The past is a closed chapter. The first generation works to distance itself from the old ways, the language, the food. Second-generation grandchildren, like me, circle back around, yearning to know more about where it all began.

In China, my grandmother was a rock star. Then, in early 2021, she became a kind of rock star here, too, when the U.S. Postal Service issued a commemorative Forever stamp in her honor. (You can also buy a T-shirt featuring her and other “Women of STEM” on it. Recently, she and her stamp were a clue on “Jeopardy!” — “Notable Asian Americans” for $800.) My grandmother’s stamp brings the grand total of Asian American women featured on stamps to two, alongside chef Joyce Chen, who popularized moo shu pork.

The portrait on my grandmother’s stamp looks just like the woman I remember: wise, discerning, with her hair in an elaborate updo — its own achievement in physics. She has that mischievous half-smile that always made me wonder what she was thinking.

We are all in a way just theorizing about the lives of those we were closest to; once they’re gone, we work with the data and notes that remain.

I am not an expert on nuclear physics, but here is what I understand: An experiment my grandmother conducted in 1956 proved a theory that shattered our fundamental understanding of the physical world. She took on a challenge no one else in her field would tackle, and demonstrated the “non-conservation of parity,” which showed that the laws of nature are not entirely symmetrical.

A phenomenon and its mirror image are not always the same.

The universe does at times distinguish between left and right.

As Janna Levin, an astrophysicist at Barnard College, told me, my grandmother’s discovery of asymmetry may be at the root of why there was more matter than antimatter after the Big Bang — why there is something instead of nothing, why everything didn’t annihilate into oblivion, and, ultimately, why the universe as we know it exists at all.

My sense of who my grandmother was, on paper, comes from many sources, some as reliable as peer-reviewed science. There is a biography of her, originally written in Chinese by Tsai-Chien Chiang, and countless articles that pop up whenever there’s an occasion to honor women in science. A children’s book, “Queen of Physics,” published in 2019, turned out to be strangely useful in my attempts to know more about her, the simplest possible telling.

What’s the most important thing to know about her career? Well, this:

Your grandmother should have won the Nobel Prize.

I started hearing that before I even understood her work (not that I could ever truly understand it). She is known worldwide as “the Chinese Marie Curie” and “the First Lady of Physics.” At Columbia, where she taught for decades, her students called her Madame Wu — or “the Dragon Lady,” if they were upset with her unrelenting perfectionism and the long hours she insisted they work in the physics lab. She preferred Professor Wu or Dr. Wu. I called her Grandma, although a Chinese kid with more exposure to the culture would have called her nai nai.

She never won the Nobel, but her name is frequently mentioned alongside giants of physics who did, like Curie, Einstein, Fermi and Feynman.

Chien-Shiung Wu was 11 when she left home, having outpaced what her parents’ school could teach her. She’d been lucky — a middle child with two brothers born to politically progressive parents, actual revolutionaries, who advocated for women’s rights and the education of girls.

Fifty miles of bumpy country roads lay between her and the highly selective girls school in Suzhou she attended tuition-free, training to be a teacher. At night, however, she borrowed physics and mathematics books from classmates, studying them in secret. Why physics? She never told me, but thrilling discoveries were coming out of Europe and America in the 1920s, propelled by Einstein’s theory of relativity. Wanting to be a part of that is as understandable as a young Patti Smith wanting to be in the East Village in the late 1960s.

She was 24 in 1936 when she began a month-long Pacific crossing on the ocean liner that brought her to America. An uncle paid her way. She had to go; there was nowhere in China to get a PhD in atomic physics then.

A Japanese invasion loomed in her home country, and those who got out then knew what they were fleeing. The first battle, the year after she left, took place in Shanghai, 27 miles south of her hometown. Then came the Rape of Nanjing, in which the Japanese raped or murdered hundreds of thousands of civilians (the number is contested), in the city where she’d just completed undergraduate studies, and where she’d led protests at Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek’s residence, demanding he do more to prevent a war.

She couldn’t have predicted that the chaos would spread into World War II, or the deaths of her uncle and brother by torture in the Cultural Revolution. She thought she’d be back in a few years.

Waving from that boat was the last time she saw her parents alive.

When the postage stamp was being released, a reporter contacted my father and asked him about his mother. He CC’d me on his answers, which were more candid than he’d ever been with me.

Could he describe how she was as a mother?

She worked long hours in the lab and came home late at night, he replied. “She took care of me, but she needed to do her work.” She checked that he’d done his homework, but didn’t micromanage.

What did they do together for fun?

“We didn’t have much in common as far as fun went,” he wrote. “Her work was her life and her fun.” She preferred to spend time with him when they traveled, rather than the mundane day-to-day.

He learned something about his own childhood from reading about her: “Her students in her lab bought a pair of tickets to the circus for us so they could get her out of the lab for a couple of hours,” he said. “She went off and returned in a half-hour with a big grin saying that she didn’t have to go, because the nursemaid had agreed to take me.”

I come from a family of physicists, and grew up in Los Alamos, N.M., a town built on secrets. Many adults around me had security clearances, and we kids learned not to ask about work. They lived professional lives of mystery, off-limits to me.

I was good at science and math, but I liked telling stories more. So I became a journalist, one who wrote a lot of sit-down profiles of celebrities, and relished grilling them about their lives. Somehow I’d never tried to peel back the layers of fame in my own family.

Even now it’s difficult, because if I dig too hard, I have to confront the idea that, in the course of her many achievements, Chien-Shiung Wu didn’t balance her work and her family life, and those choices have trickled down, through my father and then to me, in ways that I’m only beginning to understand after years of therapy. This essay took months to write, during which I had surgery on my uterus and have been freezing my eggs — wondering if I, single at 43, will be the end of her family line.

My grandmother got off that ocean liner intending to work on her PhD at the University of Michigan, but changed her mind and enrolled at the University of California at Berkeley after a spontaneous visit. She’d been horrified to learn that Michigan didn’t let women enter through the front door of the student union. Then there was her Berkeley tour guide, another Chinese physics graduate student, Chia-Liu Yuan, who went by Luke.

Luke was my grandfather, but there’s another love story here, which is less romantic — or perhaps more romantic, to physicists: Berkeley happened to have the world’s first cyclotron, a warehouse-sized apparatus that accelerates charged particles in spiraling paths and shoots them into smaller particles. As soon as my grandmother saw it, she knew she had to stay.

She’d planned to return home, but Japan’s 1937 invasion of China cut off all hope. Unmoored, and, I believe, desperate, she threw herself into her lab work, typically staying until 4 a.m. Every exam she took was propelled by the fear that if she failed, she’d have nowhere to go. Every time she passed, which was always, she celebrated at a Chinese restaurant.

At Berkeley, she began her life’s work — the study of beta decay. It’s one of three major forms of radioactive disintegration (alpha, beta and gamma), and is a manifestation of the weak interaction, the fundamental force that causes the sun to shine. As the world she knew crumbled around her, she focused on unstable atoms that, in falling apart, shed little bits of themselves to become stable again, emitting energy and becoming other elements.

Being the rare, often sole, woman — let alone Chinese woman — in whatever room she entered became a constant theme in her sputtering rise. A 1941 Oakland Tribune article about her work on nuclear fission referred to her as “a petite Chinese girl” who “looks as though she might be an actress or an artist or a daughter of wealth in search of Occidental culture.” Almost anything written about her at that time refers to how pretty she was, Orientalist in a leering way, as if shocked that she could also be the person J. Robert Oppenheimer deemed “the authority” on beta decay.

My father and I have had to piece together this part of her life from written accounts, particularly a chapter in a 1993 book called “Nobel Prize Women in Science” by Sharon Bertsch McGrayne, who interviewed my grandmother and many of her contemporaries while they were still alive.

Berkeley did not hire my grandmother for a permanent position. It was a harsh blow, which McGrayne believed was because of gender discrimination and the swell of anti-Asian sentiment during the war, particularly on the West Coast. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 had been bolstered with even stricter immigration laws in 1924. Japanese internment camps would soon be established. None of the top 20 research universities in the country had a female physics professor at the time. (Even now, according to the National Science Foundation, fewer women earn degrees in physics than in any other field of science.)

My grandfather, also unable to get a decent-paying position at Berkeley, was offered a plum spot at Caltech, then a job in New Jersey developing radar for the U.S. Defense Department. They married and moved east, the one time she’d trail after his career. She briefly taught at Smith College, where she relished mentoring young women, but her teaching duties left no time for research. A year later, in 1943, she signed on at Princeton, as one of its first female physics researchers.

A year after that, Columbia University lured her away for a secret wartime project. Two physicists in Columbia’s division of war research spent a day quizzing her, but avoided telling her anything about the work she’d be doing. Then they asked her to guess.

“I’m sorry, but if you wanted me not to know what you’re doing, you should have cleaned the blackboards,” she said.

They hired her on the spot, according to McGrayne.

Picture a moment in nuclear physics when monumental discoveries were coming at such a frantic pace that scientists would pile into lecture halls, standing room only, or climb up on pillars to get a better view of equations on a chalkboard. My grandmother was at the center of that.

By the 1950s, the symmetry of the universe, including left-right symmetry or parity conservation, was considered fact. Parity states that the universe does not favor left or right, that the laws of physics apply equally to anything and its mirror image. It had been proved to apply to macro objects such as planets and baseballs.

But at the nuclear level, not so much. Scientists were using high-speed accelerators to explode particles into collections of smaller particles, and the results were coming out wonky. Either the experiments were flawed, or 30 years of physics were.

In the spring of 1956, a male colleague of my grandmother’s at Columbia, Tsung-Dao Lee, told her about a controversial paper he was writing with Princeton’s Chen-Ning Yang. It theorized that parity might not be conserved in weak interactions, one of the four fundamental forces of the universe. (Gravity is another fundamental force; their theory was as provocative as saying gravity only works sometimes.)

My grandmother, at 44, had earned a reputation as a tough and meticulous experimentalist. She was at home in the lab, proving whether the work of theorists like Lee and Yang had real application. She didn’t see physics as a mad dash to be first; she valued precision and being unimpeachably right.

If the scientific world had not assumed Lee and Yang’s theory was far-fetched, there would have been a race of experimentalists trying to prove it. Yang later said my grandmother was the only person who understood the urgency and importance of testing their theory.

She suggested orienting an experiment around the isotope cobalt-60, a strong source of beta decay, and bringing it down to near absolute-zero temperatures, eliminating variables and making it easier to measure the path and direction of electrons emitted during decay.

Columbia didn’t have the right equipment, so she collaborated with the cryogenics team at the National Bureau of Standards in Washington, led by Ernest Ambler, who was British American. Through the fall of 1956, she traveled from New York and back to use their lab, still teaching classes at Columbia while her husband and a nanny cared for their 9-year-old son.

When pressed for memories, my grandmother’s former students tended to recall her rigor — the long hours in the lab, the nights spent sleeping on the floor. One night, a student gently reminded her that it might be time to go home to feed dinner to her son, who’d call the lab repeatedly, complaining of being hungry.

“Oh, he knows where the can opener is,” she replied, and kept working. My dad was in first grade when he first started boarding school. According to McGrayne, Dr. Wu listed a “nice husband,” a short commute and good child care as prerequisites to being a successful woman in science. I saw my grandfather’s utter devotion to her. An accomplished physicist himself, he cooked, drove her everywhere (she never learned to drive) and often put her needs first.

Preliminary results of her experiment were astounding. In a major, measurable way, far more electrons were shooting out of the south pole of the nuclei than the north. She reversed their spin, and got the same lopsided effect.

On Christmas Eve, she boarded a train back to New York, bringing good news to Lee and Yang: her work — “the Wu experiment,” as it came to be known — seemed to prove that parity was not conserved in beta decay.

The universe, it turned out, was slightly left-handed.

She went back to Washington on Jan. 2 to verify her results.

Two days later, Lee shared the news with a group of Columbia scientists — even though my grandmother had asked him not to, not yet.

This is important, because it directly impacted her ability to get credit for her discovery. Another group of Columbia scientists, led by Leon Lederman, were working on another experiment that Lederman realized could be modified to also test parity non-conservation. They confirmed my grandmother’s results in four days.

Word began spreading. My grandmother kept checking her results in repeat tests, under intense pressure to publish a paper that would beat Lederman’s. In physics, whoever submits — and publishes — first gets the glory.

Lederman held off submitting his, at Lee’s request; had they not been colleagues at Columbia, such niceties were not likely to have occurred. It wasn’t until Jan. 9 that my grandmother’s team pulled a bottle out of a drawer, a rare 1949 Chateau Lafite Rothschild Bordeaux, and toasted the overthrow of parity. Both papers were published in Physical Review on Jan. 15, 1957. Lederman’s paper acknowledged that he only started his experiment after hearing of my grandmother’s results.

Columbia held a press conference. The news ran on the front page of the New York Times. At the annual meeting of the American Physical Society in New York that January, a large lecture hall at Columbia was “occupied by so immense a crowd that some of its members did everything but hang from the chandeliers,” according to a newsletter.

It was a triumph, but the damage, in a sense, was done. Later that year, the Nobel committee declined to award anyone on the experimental side; Lee and Yang won for their theoretical work, and were the first physicists of Chinese nationality to receive a Nobel.

Sexism seems present, if not directly overt. In 120 years, only four women have won a Nobel in physics. Chien-Shiung Wu’s work was lauded over the coming decades: an honorary doctorate of science from Princeton (where the university president called her “the world’s foremost female physicist”); tenure at Columbia; the National Medal of Science; the presidency of the American Physical Society; and Israel’s prestigious Wolf Prize.

We won’t know what went on in the Nobel deliberations until the records are unsealed, once Lee and Yang (aged 99 and 94, respectively) have died, but there were mitigating factors: dueling papers (and a third from Chicago a week later); some insistence that the NBS scientists deserved to share the credit; the Nobel’s limit on the number of people awarded in each category per year.

I don’t know what my grandmother thought about this, or if she thought much about it all, because it involves the sort of feelings she never brought up.

My dad says she would have wanted her work to speak for itself.

When I wrote a Facebook post about the Chien-Shiung Wu stamp, some of my friends shared it with their circles. Someone I don’t know replied that he wouldn’t be buying the stamp because of her crucial work on the Manhattan Project, developing a method for uranium enrichment to increase the supply of fuel for the bomb.

The scientists are not absolved of the destruction wrought on Hiroshima and Nagasaki; they also didn’t control their governments. Like her friend Oppenheimer, she had complex regrets. During a visit to Taiwan in 1965, she advised Chinese nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek never to go down the road of building nuclear weapons.

The bomb in many ways brought my family to New Mexico. I grew up partly in the mountain town of Los Alamos, which is dominated by the national laboratory complex founded as part of the Manhattan Project, and partly in a rural valley where a walk to Ponce’s gas station to buy Jolly Ranchers was a full-day activity. My grandmother made precisely one trip to the high desert to visit us, when I was a baby. The altitude was bad for her blood pressure. There was nowhere to get good Chinese food. She was unimpressed.

For college, my father studied physics and got his PhD at Columbia. But he was also a long-haired counterculturalist in the 1960s, and my grandmother thought he didn’t study hard enough. She wasn’t overjoyed when he fell in love with my mom, a very much not Chinese hippie with long blond hair who later became a glass artist. My own options for a rebellious streak were so limited that not becoming a scientist was the most subversive thing I could do.

I always wondered why my father went into physics — why follow in such large footsteps? Was it pressure? Was it a need to bond with his mother by partaking in her greatest passion?

All of that, he told me recently, never occurred to him. He liked being a detective of science, working in a world where there were right answers, and a good experiment could prove them correct.

Twice a year, usually on school breaks, my parents and I went to New York to see my grandparents. In their apartment, amid the carved jade statues and scroll paintings, was a wall covered in framed photographs of my grandparents with various people I didn’t recognize. It took me until my teens to start asking who was in the pictures: Muhammad Ali, on the day he and my grandmother both received the Ellis Island Medal of Honor. Pope John Paul II. President Gerald Ford. Zhou Enlai, the first premier of the People’s Republic of China, whom she met when the country opened back up to the West in the 1970s.

Physics was a small world and my grandmother kept company with the greats. Ernest Lawrence, who invited her to study at Berkeley, won a Nobel for inventing the cyclotron. Her thesis adviser was Emilio Segrè, a future Nobel laureate from Italy — also stranded far from home after Mussolini took power. When Enrico Fermi, who built the world’s first practical nuclear reactor (key to the Manhattan Project), became frustrated that it mysteriously kept shutting down, Segrè told him to “ask Miss Wu.” She confirmed his suspicion that xenon-135, a byproduct of nuclear fission, was poisoning the reactor. Oppenheimer, whom my grandmother called “Oppie,” called her “Jiejie,” an affectionate term meaning “elder sister” in Chinese.

My father can’t confirm this tale, but I’ve heard it often: When he was born in Princeton in 1947, a friend of my grandma’s, a scientist who had also escaped the horrors of war, came to visit her in the hospital. That was Albert Einstein.

On the 2012 jubilee trip to China, amid the commemorations and motorcades, one of my relatives asked: Would we want to see an opera tonight?

It might be nice, I thought, to escape all the attention for a night out with close family. When we got to the opera house, I spied the title on the program: “Chien-Shiung Wu.” Of course.

My grandmother had taken me to see Chinese opera in New York, the kind with more costumes and makeup than sets, with men playing the erhu and a huge, bug-eyed dragon snaking around in the darkness.

This, though, was an elaborate, modern stage production. The curtain rose on a little girl in a village in China with big ambitions to change the world. There was plenty of truth: her devotion to her father, the rarity of her getting an education. Then it got (more) surreal. I had to stifle a laugh during the scene when she arrives in an America depicted by cardboard cutouts of the Golden Gate Bridge, the Empire State Building and Mount Rushmore all at once, while singers danced around the stage on Rollerblades.

The fact that my grandmother had never repatriated to China seemed to be a particular sticking point: The opera featured several arias about how she had only come to America to save China through science. A little boy playing my father appeared in a couple of scenes — including one in which he runs into the room, waving a passport, and asks, in a bratty manner, why would anyone want to leave America?

The actress playing my grandmother slapped him so hard he fell to the ground, crying.

I looked over to gauge my father’s reaction.

He was asleep.

Four years later, we heard from the Postal Service, in an email marked “Confidential.” Would we support Chien-Shiung Wu being a part of the Distinguished Americans stamp series? This was just the “recommendation” phase. They needed to see estate documents. The Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee gets around 30,000 nominations for stamp subjects every year. We still don’t know who submitted her name or how she got picked.

As executor of her estate, my dad gets a lot of these types of requests. He’s bad about responding. Fans and admirers of my grandmother’s legacy often locate me as a last resort, asking if I can get my father to write them back. At 74, he still works on classified nuclear physics projects and has limited access to personal computer use, which he mainly spends checking on me, the New York Knicks or the Cleveland Browns. This was the only request I’ve seen him respond to right away.

We knew better than to dwell on the stamp as a certainty, but two years later, the preliminary artwork came back ­­­­— an egg-tempera painting by a Hong Kong-born, Brooklyn-based artist, Kam Mak. A couple of years after that, the USPS had more news for us: The stamp would be released on Feb. 11, 2021, in observance of International Day of Women and Girls in Science. It would be a Forever stamp, first class for all time.

Unless you’re a collector, stamps are just stamps — at least until your grandmother is on one. This stamp has connected me with long-lost cousins and former students of my grandmother’s. Little girls who love science have sent drawings of their new hero, C.S. Wu.

A friend in New York put the Dr. Wu stamp on 100 postcards for the Stop Asian Hate movement, which she encouraged people to send to their congressional representatives.

I told her she was overspending by 12 cents per postcard. She said having my grandmother’s face on them is far more important.

I like to think of my grandmother’s New York apartment as where I learned to appreciate being Chinese. It was this other world of ornate tea sets and the smell of steamed cabbage and conversations in Chinese that always made me think my grandparents were talking about me right in front of me.

Those trips to the city were filled with visits to relatives, many of whom my grandparents had helped immigrate to New York. There were banquets in elegant places with white tablecloths, where a wood-carved relief of a dragon greeted us at the entrance. My grandmother knew where all the secret best restaurants were, and they always seemed to be located under a highway overpass. The kids ran loose, receiving red envelopes filled with crisp dollar bills, dodging uncles trying to get us to eat sea cucumber. My grandmother presided over these events like a queen — Madame Wu in her splendor.

She was an elegant writer, and fluent in English, but as a kid, I’d often get frustrated trying to decipher her accent on phone calls, and hand the receiver back to my parents. When I was 9, I remember her excitedly telling me she’d be taking me to see the … the what, Grandma? It was a “p” word. It wasn’t until we were pushing through crowds at the Bronx Zoo that I realized she’d been talking about the giant pandas, Yong Yong and Ling Ling, who were on short-term loan from Beijing.

We did better in person and with the letters and postcards she’d send me from around the world. A stamp seems like a fitting tribute, affixed to her favorite means of communication. I’ll never know to what degree language prevented us from knowing one another deeply. It reduced communication to its purest exchange: I knew she loved me.

I was the only one of my friends whose report card results were relayed to a near-Nobel laureate. I got one bad grade when I was 6 and then never again. My parents kept her abreast of my homework, and of my progress on the violin, which for a long while was my passion, all because she had taken me to a children’s orchestra concert, conducted by Yo-Yo Ma’s sister, Yeou-Cheng Ma. They were somehow friends.

I wonder if the stories I tell make her sound too much like the stereotype of stern Chinese grandmothers. When really, all she wanted me to see was the limitlessness to life; what can be gained by pushing past the barriers around you. She was fighting to be seen and respected at a time when women and Chinese people in America rarely were.

As early as 1965, she was giving speeches advocating for more women in science. At MIT’s symposium that year on women in science and engineering, she railed against the “unimpeachable tradition” of science being seen as a male field, and wondered aloud if atoms or DNA molecules “have any preference for either the masculine or feminine treatment,” the way our society did.

“In our present society of plenty and proficiency, is it too much to provide excellent professional child care during the day so that mothers can get away from monotonous household chores and work in their chosen fields?” she asked. Yes, it was important for scientists to have home lives, she said. “However, this noble human desire to be devoted companions and parents must, ideally, be equally shared by men.”

We had one fight that I remember, when I was a preteen and I proudly showed her my newly pierced ears. She was so angry. How could I choose to put holes in my body? Later I found out that her father had been adamantly against the foot-binding of girls, which was banned the year she was born but widely practiced long thereafter. She’d barely been spared.

It was just one of the distances between us — my American incuriosity and her Chinese stoicism. My grandparents, who were finally able to return to China, many times, beginning in the late 1970s, never took their only granddaughter along with them — to meet relatives, to learn about the culture. China was home, but I imagine that for my grandmother it was also a place tinged with loss, the same kind of loss I feel whenever I pass by her street near Columbia.

My last memory of my grandma is of her in one of the beloved pair of armchairs upholstered in faded yellow corduroy, where she and my grandfather enjoyed sitting together. I was holding her hand, not long after she’d had her first stroke in 1996. She loved to look out the window, down to the Barnard campus, where she marveled at the young women practicing basketball in a gymnasium with big windows.

Look at how strong they are, how fast, she’d say. Look how hard they work.

I was a month into the second semester of my freshman year at Yale when she died on a frigid Sunday in February 1997. She collapsed in her yellow armchair while my grandfather was making her lunch. “You have to call your mom,” my roommate said. “She’s called 20 times.” A classmate I didn’t know well told me how sorry he was; he’d read my grandmother’s obituary in the New York Times before I did.

Decades have passed. My grandfather died six years after she did, after being hospitalized on a trip to China. The postage stamp has been a blessing — a time to reflect on my grandmother’s life and talk to my parents about their memories. But it’s been hard sometimes to keep up the facade of endless enthusiasm about honoring her. I don’t want to have to learn about her from history books. I just want to hold her hand again and ask her to tell me what it was like: the ride across the ocean, the immeasurable sacrifice, the war, the rush of the Wu experiment, the singular thrill of discovery.

I think about that night at the opera, and how much effort and devotion went into telling her life’s story for just those few performances, perhaps never to be seen again. How the singer who played my grandmother wept when she met us. How the story they told was Chien-Shiung Wu’s, but also not — how it was told through a lens of China wanting to claim her.

It is a constant. People, institutions and countries want to claim her, just as I still want to claim her, in an asymmetrical universe where the reality of a person is not the same as the image of them that stretches on through space and time. I accept that a much larger part of who she was is completely unknowable, and belongs to everybody.

About this story

Story editing by Hank Stuever. Photo editing by Moira Haney. Copy editing by Annabeth Carlson. Design by Beth Broadwater.