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Chien-Shiung Wu: the woman at the basis of quantum technology (but who didn't get a Nobel Prize)

The 1957 Nobel Prize in Physics, according to many, went unfairly to Tsung-Dao Lee and Chen-Ning Yang. These two theoretical physicists had predicted the idea of ‘parity violation’, crucial in quantum physics, but it was Chien-Shiung Wu (1912-1997) who demonstrated the phenomenon through an experiment.

It wasn’t until twenty years later that she received recognition for her – now legendary – experiment: she received the Wolf Prize, aka the consolation prize for people who failed to win the Nobel Prize.

Wu’s experiment

Wu demonstrated parity violation through her experiment, but what exactly is it? In short: a violation of parity symmetry. Parity means mirror symmetry, a transformation in particles that swaps left and right. For a long time, it was thought that the laws of nature remain unchanged under this mirroring, the so-called law of conservation of parity. However, Wu’s experiment showed that parity has no symmetry. This had significant consequences for physics. She showed that particles are not always symmetrical. For example, where a certain left-handed particle would normally become right-handed when mirrored, it actually remains left-handed after that mirroring. As a result, physicists can now objectively distinguish between the concepts of ‘left’ and ‘right’

Other experiments

Besides her most famous experiment on parity violation, Wu was also particularly active on numerous other topics. For example, she was involved in nuclear fission and was part of the ‘Manhattan Project’, where she helped separate uranium isotopes. She was also the first to demonstrate the phenomenon of ‘quantum entanglement’. This is a special phenomenon from quantum mechanics in which the properties of a pair of particles remain intertwined even though the particles are brought a great distance apart. As a result of her achievements, Wu was known as the ‘first lady of physics’ and was compared to her predecessor, Marie Curie.

Quantum mechanics and patents

Until now, no concrete technological applications have been developed for the phenomenon of parity violation. But that may change in the future. For example, experiments with quantum entanglement have led to new inventions and applications such as quantum computers and quantum communications. Scientists are making more and more inventions in quantum mechanics, which is seen, for instance, in the number of patent applications for quantum technology world­wide. Between 1997 and 2019, as many as 35,278 patents were filed in the field of quantum technology. Whereas in 1997 there were only 134 applications, in 2019 there were no less than 4,573!

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