Original play by Yu ’12 explores the life of an overlooked physicist

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Student playwright Lily Yu ’12 is pursuing a certificate in biophysics. Her play, Glass, Darkly, examines the life and career of physicist Chien-Shiung Wu, known as the Chinese Madame Curie. (Alice Zheng ’13)
Lily Yu ’12 believes that poets and physicists aren’t that different. “They’re both looking to describe the world as clearly and honestly as they can,” she explained. Yu, an English major pursuing a certificate in biophysics, knows this firsthand. Her writing has been published in Clarkesworld Magazine and The Kenyon Review Online and chosen for the Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year: Volume 6. She says her work is the sort of “stuff that gives people headaches trying to classify.”

Her play, Glass, Darkly, won last year’s Princeton Science Playwriting Competition, and it is something different than her usual work, she says. Glass, Darkly seeks to bring the life of physicist Chien-Shiung Wu out of the shadows. Once a Princeton instructor in the 1940s, Wu was a Chinese-American physicist often called the First Lady of Physics and the Chinese Madame Curie. In addition to her contributions to the field of nuclear physics, Wu participated in the Manhattan Project, and her work laid the foundations for others to receive the Nobel Prize. Still, Yu says, history has seemed to forget Professor Wu.

Yu was drawn to writing about Wu’s life because she had known virtually nothing about Wu and felt something needed to be done. “I wanted to make something beautiful out of material that was interesting to me,” she said, laughing as she noted that her desire to write about Wu might have been a selfish one. “She was a Chinese-American physicist; I thought I was going to become a Chinese-American physicist,” Yu said.

Although poring over books and articles yielded some basic biographical information, Yu was frustrated to find that no comprehensive biography of Wu existed. To shape her play, she relied on the few details she could unearth in Firestone Library. She chose to tell the story in a surrealist fashion to accommodate the complexity of Wu’s life and the creative leaps she had to make.

The show consists of five characters, including Wu. During a staged reading of the play Oct. 17, the supporting characters formed a semi-circle around Wu and their presences faded in and out as Wu described her professional journey embedded with personal snapshots. Wu’s character remained calm, poised, and passionate — giving this “invisible woman” a bit more humanity than the textbooks do. Throughout the play, Yu evoked an image of a rotating oval mirror suspended over her characters to illustrate for her audience the physics concepts discussed by Wu.

This idea of teaching science through art was producer and physics professor Christopher Herzog *02’s central goal for the event and the playwriting competition. Having produced two other science-related shows in the past, Herzog said, “There are simply not that many good plays about science. The competition gets around this problem.”

To Herzog, Yu’s play stood out from the rest of the entries. He was impressed with the intricacies of her poetic language and her choice to tell the fascinating story of a relatively unknown scientist. Herzog hoped that by sharing the winning plays with a public staged reading he could excite larger audiences about science and also bring scientists together with artists. “This event is not only about teaching science,” he said, “but also about teaching scientists.” 

 

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Emily Trost ’13 is a geosciences major from Huntingdon Valley, Pa.

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