HerStory February 2018: Sau Lan Wu

We are sharing our love letters for the HerStory Sock Club here, just in case you misplaced yours, didn’t get one, or want to check out what we send prior to signing up. Remember that there are many LYS’s that carry HerStory (listed on our front page), but if your local shop doesn’t, or if you love getting unicorn-encrusted mail from us, you can purchase a 3-month or year-long subscription from us here

For February’s HerStory lesson, we are shrinking ourselves down to explore the things that make up protons and neutrons. (Honey! I shrunk the sock club!)

Meet Sau Lan Wu, a scientist who’s been making a mark in her field since her graduate student days. The discoveries in particle physics that she has made make our knitterly brains feel a bit…scrambled. They all have the sweetest names (Charm Quark, Gluon, Higgs Boson) with super important, understanding-the-world-we-live-in significance. We’re making our best effort to distill the information we’ve been researching into a snappy little letter, but a big grain of salt to all of you actual scientists out there: PLEASE forgive us our lack of actual scientific knowledge surrounding this stuff. To misquote Dr. McCoy from Star Trek: “Dammit, people! We’re fiber artists, not scientists!”

Sau Lan Wu was born in Hong Kong, the daughter of a businessman who she rarely saw and his sixth concubine (what?!?!). Her youth was informed by her absentee father, her mother’s poverty, and the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong… She recalls her mother shielding her and her brother from the bombing raids and living in a corridor of a rice shop in a Hong Kong slum. Her greatest dream was of being financially independent of men, and fortunately she had a mother that believed in the importance of education for her daughter. This was the 1940s and 50s, when, for the most part, the education of women was neither considered necessary nor important. Wu once dreamed of becoming a painter, but after reading a biography of our January HerStory subject, Marie Curie, she decided to devote herself to the study of physics. After high school, she received a full scholarship to Vassar College, and traveled alone (by boat!) from Hong Kong to get to New York. While there, along with the shock of living on a prestigious college campus in America (she likened it to feeling like a princess), she also experienced both the best (a visit to the White House and an audience with Jackie Kennedy!!) and the worst (a visit to the Supreme Court where she was faced with the choice of entering a “whites” or a “colored” restroom) of America. In 1963, she went on to study for both an MA and a PhD at Harvard, where she faced some hardcore sexism (including getting kicked out of a congratulatory luncheon for graduates at Harvard Yard, among many other overt and covert instances of harassment), and is currently an Enrico Fermi Professor of Physics at the University of Wisconsin. Her decision not to have children was a direct result of the sexism inherent in that time. She and her husband had long talks about starting a family, and ultimately realized that her career would be over the moment she announced a pregnancy. Sad but true.

There are seventeen elementary, building-block-y particles predicted by the Standard Model, which is the ruling theory of physics. Wu was instrumental in discovering three of them, including the Higgs Boson in 2012, commonly known as the “God particle.” Physicists believe that the Higgs is the particle that gives mass to matter. Without it, nothing that we know would exist, including ourselves. Mind-bending, isn’t it? 

In 1974, she was on the Nobel-prize-winning team that led to the discovery of the Charm Quark. We googled “charm quarks for dummies” and got a kid’s science website that proved to be super helpful in our understanding of these elementary particles. Quarks are the basic building blocks for protons and neutrons. They are teensy things, and the six types (up, down, charm, strange, top, and bottom) are called “flavors.” Yum.

In 1979, Wu was the leading figure in the discovery of the Gluon. Gluons are a type of Boson, and are known as the force-carrier between Quarks. One of the best things we read in our research is that a bunch of gluons bound together is called a glueball.

After all of this research into Sau Lan Wu and particle physics, we were extra-inspired to create a colorway that reflected our favorite of her discoveries: the Charm Quark. Like the three primary colors of light, Quarks can be red, green, and blue, and when mixed, they create white light. All of this, plus a bunch of other micro-microscopic movement and quarkiness (get it? quirkiness???) is happening inside every proton and neutron out there. Which is what we think we achieved on this skein. We do want to remind everyone that true red is a son-of-a-gun, dye-wise, and sometimes, even with the extra rinsing we perform on a colorway like Charm Quark, some skeins may have a bit of extra red. If your red does spread a bit, let’s get physics-cal with it and think about those quark pairs and how sometimes, they stretch themselves to the very limits, without breaking. But sometimes, they break. If yours break a bit, it’s just physics, baby.

If you’d like to take more of a fun foray into particle physics, we totally recommend spending a bit of time with Physics Girl (http://physicsgirl.org/). She has loads of videos and blog posts, explaining concepts that will blow your minds in a fun and easy-to-digest way. Along with a few geared-toward-children science websites, Dianna Cowern’s fun videos helped us to sort-of-kind-of understand what we’re talking about here. 

HerStory January 2018: Marie Curie

We are sharing our love letters for the HerStory Sock Club here, just in case you misplaced yours, didn’t get one, or want to check out what we send prior to signing up. Remember that there are many LYS’s that carry HerStory (listed on our front page), but if your local shop doesn’t, or if you love getting unicorn-encrusted mail from us, you can purchase a 3-month or year-long subscription from us here

We are feeling downright electrified by our 2018 HerStory line-up. We’ve been scouring the web and our feminist books for the best and the brightest international women of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), and we’re starting out with one of the true greats, Marie Curie. We do want to share that, although we have great respect for the women of STEM, we are not necessarily STEM folk ourselves, so we’ll be discussing things we only nebulously understand in these monthly love letters. Do bear with us if we get some of the facts confused…

Born in Warsaw, Poland in 1867 to a family with a strong belief in the importance and power of education and a defiantly pro-Polish-independence-from-Russia-bent, Marie Curie moved to Paris as a young woman to further her educational career. Her pre-Paris life involved family, schooling, and a bit of resistance; at that time, Poland was a country divided. Her native Warsaw was under control of the Russians, and after making some noise there, she felt the need to leave Warsaw for Austrian-controlled (and friendlier-to-the-Polish-independence-cause) Cracow.

After moving to Paris, where she ended up spending much of the rest of her adult life, she enrolled in the University of Paris and met Pierre Curie (her future husband and co-conspirator in all things radioactivity). This is where the power couple began the research that led to the winning of her first Nobel Peace Prize, in Physics, which she shared with her husband and Henri Becquerel, who discovered radiation. In the work that led to the couple’s joint 1903 Nobel prize, Marie and Pierre isolated polonium (named after Marie’s beloved Poland) and radium, furthering the scientific community’s understanding of radiation. Her second Nobel Prize was bestowed for Chemistry in 1911, for more work in radioactivity. Marie was one smart and driven cookie.

A scientific pioneer for her entire adult life and career, Marie Curie was the first woman to ever win a Nobel prize, and the first person of any gender to win two. She was also the first female professor at the University of Paris, and the first woman to be entombed at the Pantheon on her own merits. And this was all during the late 1800s and early 1900s, when women all over the world were fighting for the rights to make their marks (not that that’s much different than what’s happening now, but this was the time of the worldwide Women’s Suffrage Movement, so it’s not like Marie entered these situations on equal footing with her male colleagues).

During WW2, Marie focused her energies on ensuring that battlefield doctors had access to safe places to operate on injured soldiers as quickly as possible. She researched the intersection between radiology, anatomy, and auto mechanics (of all things!) to develop mobile radiology units that could easily be deployed to the front lines. These were quickly known as Petites Curies, after her. The saving of the lives of countless French soldiers can be traced back to Marie’s tireless work on this front.

Although the study and practical applications of radiation were the driving force in her life, unfortunately the dangers were neither understood nor really known. She died at the age of 66 from a blood disorder that was later believed to be a direct result of her long-term exposure to radioactive elements.

We chose the most radioactive colors we could think of for our Radioactive Rainbow colorway. It’s eye-searingly bright, in the most delightful way, and if you look closely, you can see glimmers of polonium, and radium, and that spark of whatever it is that Marie had that made her push forward and keep working and strive for the best when the deck seemed to be stacked against her.