He Zehui: An Example for Chinese WomenCelebrating the Centennial Anniversary of the Woman Scientist

November 24, 2016
By Liu BohongEditor: Joyce Dong
He Zehui an Example for Chinese Women

He Zehui at different ages [Women Voice]


He Zehui (March 5, 1914 to June 20, 2011), was a distinguished female physicist in modern China. She accomplished great things in physics, and she became a stellar example for all Chinese women.

Distinguished Physicist

He Zehui was born in Suzhou, in East China's Jiangsu Province, on March 5, 1914. At the age of 22, she graduated with a bachelor's degree in physics from Tsinghua University. She was the top student in her class. Between 1936 and 1940, she studied at the Technical University of Berlin (Germany), where she majored in ballistics. She received a doctorate from that university. After she graduated, she joined the Institute for Nuclear Physics, in Heidelberg, Germany, as a researcher. During that time, she made a great discovery: Elastic collision, during which positive and negative electrons exchanged energy.

In 1946, He moved to Paris, where she met Qian Sanqiang (1913-1992), another famous Chinese physicist. Over time, they fell in love and got married. For a while, they worked under Irene Joliot-Curie (daughter of Marie Curie and Pierre Currie, world-famous French physicists and chemists, and pioneers in radioactivity and winners of the Nobel Prize in 1903) and her husband, Frederic Joliot, two world-renowned physicists, at the French Academy in Paris.

During their stay in Paris, He and Qian made great discoveries in the field of uranium fission. (Fission is a nuclear reaction, in which the nucleus of a particle splits into smaller parts.) The discoveries caused a global sensation and, of course, earned He and Qian tremendous reputations. Many Western media outlets called them the "Marie Curie and Pierre Currie of China."

In 1948, He and Qian, who wanted to serve their home country, returned to China, and they established a nuclear-research institute in Beijing. After the People's Republic of China was founded on October 1, 1949, He served as a researcher at three organizations under the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS): The Institute of Physics (IP), the China Atomic Energy Authority (CAEA) and the Institute of High Energy Physics (IHEP). She also served, at one time or another, as vice-president of both CAEA and IHEP.

During the 1950s, the research group under He's leadership produced nuclear emulsion (a photographic emulsion that can be used to record and investigate fast-charged particles, such as nucleons, mesons and hadronic [a hadron is a composite particle made of quarks held together by the strong force] subatomic particles, which are composed of one quark and one antiquark and bound together by strong interaction). That discovery marked a milestone in the development of China's experimental neutron physics and fission physics (branches of nuclear physics).

During the late 1950s, He and her research group took the lead in both establishing China's first lab of neutron physics and fission physics and in building China's first nuclear reactor and accelerator. She completed many experiments, and she made many great achievements in the study of nuclear physics. Under He's guidance, many young researchers emerged as promising scientists in China.

Beginning in the 1970s, He focused her work on space science (the study of everything in outer space). He played a role in the development of China's scientific balloon, and in building the cosmic ray observation station in Western China's Tibet Autonomous Region. Thanks to He's efforts, China made outstanding progress in high-energy astrophysics.

As a female scientist, He overcame many obstacles, and she was constantly on the front lines of China's science-related work. The world’s top physicists recognized He as a famous scientist in the fields of experimental physics, nuclear physics and high-energy physics. She served as a member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and as a member of the Chinese Academy of Engineering.

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