Chen Ning Yang (杨振宁), a native of Hefei in Anhui, and Tsung Dao Lee (李政道), a Shanghainese, came to Chicago in 1945 and 1946. Recognized as brilliant young physicists during their wartime studies in Kunming, both received scholarships to attend the University of Chicago, which at the time led the world in high-energy physics. Yang’s father, Ko Chuen Yang (杨克纯), had also been at the University of Chicago, having graduated with a PhD in mathematics in 1928. Yang and Tsung became friends while working under such great physicists as Enrico Fermi. The two worked closely together on research projects, receiving their PhD’s in 1949 and 1950.
Yang had another Chicago connection besides his mathematician father. While a student at the wartime Southwest Associated University in Ku
nming, he studied Chinese literature with the poet and artist Wen Yiduo, who had attended Chicago’s School of the Art Institute in 1922 and written a poem about Chinese laundries in Chicago.
Both Yang and Lee settled in the United States afterward. Yang got a job at the famed Institute of Advanced Studies in Princeton, later moving to the State University of New York at Stony Brook. Lee stayed for a while in in the Midwest, working at the University of Chicago’s Yerkes Observatory in Wisconsin, before going first to Princeton and then Columbia. Yang and Lee made their most famous breakthrough, proof that parity nonconservation only applies to weak interactions among sub-atomic particles, while eating at a Chinese restaurant in New York City in 1956. They shared the Nobel Prize in physics for that proof the next year, in 1957. It was the first Nobel to be won by anyone of Chinese ancestry.
Yang’s official Nobel biography describes him in 1957 as “a quiet, modest, and affable physicist; he met his wife Chih Li Tu while teaching mathematics at her high school in China. He is a hard worker allowing himself very little leisure time.”
Lee’s Nobel biography, also dating from 1957, is not much more informative. It notes that “he married (Jeannette) Hui Chung Chin a former university student, in 1950. His favourite pastimes are: playing with his two young boys, James and Stephen; and reading “whodunits” (detective novels).”
Research & writing by Ben Bronson and Chuimei Ho; copyright 2004-2006 by the Chinatown Museum Foundation.
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