In his landmark “Two Cultures” lecture in 1959, C.P.Snow spoke of the mutual isolation of scientific culture and “traditional” (i.e. literary) culture, on the basis of his experience in the academic circles of Cambridge. During the war, he had had occasion to interview a large number of scientists and engineers, and found them in general to be poorly read. As further evidence of this schizm, he pondered whether there had been much talk at High Table about “the discovery at Columbia by Yang and Lee” … “one of the most astonishing discoveries in the whole history of science” which had occurred two years previously. “Was it? I wasn’t here: but I should like to ask the question” was his own answer, but he was clearly implying that it was unlikely to have been a hot topic outside the physics community.

There is a deep irony here. For he was referring to the discovery of parity violation, and that discovery was made, not by Yang and Lee, but by Chien-Shiung Wu and her colleagues. So Snow, who has set himself up as a member of both camps – he was a scientist turned writer – has shown his own knowledge of science to be somewhat lacking, and can hardly therefore complain if professors of English literature know no better.

In defence of Snow, I should point out that it is an understandable mistake to make. For it was Yang and Lee who proposed the theory of parity violation, the experiment itself having arisen out of a discussion between Lee and Wu about possible experimental tests of the theory, though the actual choice of experiment was Wu’s. And astonishingly, the 1957 Nobel Prize for parity violation was shared by  Yang and Lee, but not by Wu. She thus joined the ranks of other female scientists in the post-war period to have been overlooked in this way – along with Rosalind Franklin and Jocelyn Bell.

Both of these names are much more likely to come up at High Table than Wu’s, despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that both were displaced by male Cambridge scientists. And students of the history of science will certainly be familiar with Franklin, if not with Bell too – but not many are likely to have heard of Wu.

However, this is not a gender issue, according to a recent study by Magdolna Hargittai of Budapest University of Technology and Economics. “There is no indication in her life that suggests such discrimination”, says Hargittai. More likely – according to the physicist Herwig Schopper – it is a theorist/experimentalist issue, arising out of the Nobel Committee’s practice of giving the prize to no more than three people, so that it is more likely to go to theorists, who tend to work in twos or threes, than to experimentalists, who even in the 1950s were tending to form large groups.

I cannot resist repeating, at this point, a little-known anecdote concerning this woman who revolutionised particle physics, proving even Richard Feynman wrong. In my first adventure in oral history, I interviewed the late Ken Smith, the first professor of experimental physics at Sussex University. Before Sussex, he had worked in Cambridge with Otto Frisch on molecular beams, using a magnetic resonance technique to determine the magnetic moments of various nuclei. He described the announcement by his group of its measurement of the nuclear spin of “radium E” (now known as bismuth-210) at a conference in 1952, and the effect it had on one member of the audience, who was so overcome with delight at the announcement that the conference had to be adjourned to allow her to recover. That delegate was Chien-Shiung Wu. (Smith, by the way, worked for many years with Norman Ramsey, who in the 1940s had bet Feynman that parity would be found to be violated).

Despite having been described as the “First Lady of Physics”, Wu is not well known outside the particle physics community. (In fact, when I first learned about the experiment, she even seemed to lack a first name, being described by the lecturer, and in many textbooks, as simply “Madam Wu”). In contrast, the name of Rosalind Franklin – who died shortly after the parity violation experiment – is familiar to every historian of science. Why such a big difference? Well, maybe because the DNA story is something most people can get a grip on, and also because of the presence of other larger-than-life figures such as Crick and Watson. But maybe some of the blame should also be attributed to the History of Science’s own “Two Cultures” syndrome – the splitting of the discipline into “internalist” and “externalist” streams, with the historians who came to dominate the field favouring the latter, in which contexts and non-scientific factors are preferred to the actual science as objects of study. The DNA story has all sorts of things the historians can get their teeth into – gender and maybe even race discrimination, ambition, inter-lab rivalry, and a fascinating array of personalities –  without bothering about the science. The parity violation story just has the physics – and it might be one of the most important discoveries in physics in the 20th century, but it’s still just physics as far as the historians are concerned.

[References: “Credit Where Credit’s Due?”, by Magdolna Hargittai, Physics World, September 2012; letters, Physics World, December 2012; “Why Physics Needs Oral History” by Jim Grozier, History of Physics Group Newsletter, August 2007]

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