• Sara Thompson

Get to know Maria Goeppert Mayer

By Sara Thompson

Special to the Enterprise

Dr. Maria Goeppert Mayer in front of a chalkboard with writing on it
Dr. Maria Goeppert Mayer; Image credit is the U.S. Department of Energy

Maria Goeppert was born on June 28, 1906, in Kattowitz. In 1910, she moved with her family to Göttingen, Germany, where her father was a professor at the University of Göttingen. She was an only child and was close with her father, finding his science and teaching background fascinating. Her father encouraged her to pursue science and higher education and she was one of 4 other women in her graduating class to pass the university entrance exams.

Maria attended the University of Göttingen, initially studying mathematics, but she instead changed her interests to physics. Later in life she is quoted saying “Mathematics began to seem too much like puzzle solving. Physics is puzzling solving, too, but of puzzles created by nature, not by the mind of man”. In 1930 she defended her doctoral thesis on the theory of two-photon absorption. Even though her theory was not able to be tested by the technology of the time, her theory was verified in 1961 and to honor her initial work the units of two-photon absorption cross section is named the “GM” after her.

In 1930 she married chemist Joseph Edward Mayer. The couple soon moved to the United States as he was offered a position to teach at Johns Hopkins University. Due to anti-nepotism rules, she was unable to be hired as a faculty member but accepted a position as an assistant in the physics department with a small salary. Between 1937 and 1946 Goeppert Mayer bounced between unpaid and part time positions at various universities and institutions including Columbia University, Sarah Lawrence College, Los Alamos Laboratory, University of Chicago, and the Argonne National Laboratory.

During her time at the Argonne National Laboratory, Goeppert Mayer developed a model for the structure of nuclear shells, which are the arrangement of particles in the nucleus of atoms. Her model explained that there are certain numbers of nucleons that cause the atom to be more stable than others. Dubbed “magic numbers” these arrangements are most stable when the nucleons are arranged in numbers of 2, 8, 20, 28, 50, 82, and 126. Her findings and those of other German scientists were found independently around the same time, and the two groups began to collaborate and published joint work on the nuclear shell structure in 1950. This published work would lead Maria Goeppert Mayer, along with colleagues J. Hans D. Jensen and Eugene Wigner, to a Nobel Prize in Physics.

Maria Goeppert Mayer would be only the second female Nobel laureate, with Marie Curie being the first. In 1960 she was offered a full-time professorship at the University of California, San Diego. Even though she suffered a stroke shortly after her appointment, she continued to teach and research. She passed away in 1972 after suffering a heart attack. After her death, Goeppert Mayer has been honored in several ways. She has various awards named after her, being awarded to up-and-coming female scientists and engineers. Each year the University of California, San Diego holds a symposium named after her, and many university halls are named Mayer after both her and her husband for their contributions to science.


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