Maria Goeppert Mayer

Maria Goeppert-Mayer

Maria Goeppert-Mayer (June 28, 1906February 20, 1972) was a German-born American theoretical physicist, and Nobel laureate in Physics for proposing the nuclear shell model of the atomic nucleus. She is the second female laureate in physics after Marie Curie.


Goeppert-Mayer was born Maria Goeppert in Kattowitz (today: Katowice, Poland), within the German Empire's Prussian Province of Silesia. Her family moved to Göttingen in 1910 when her father Friedrich was appointed Professor of Paediatrics at the town's university. On her father's side, Goeppert-Mayer a seventh generation professor. From a young age, she was surrounded by the students and lecturers from the university, intellectuals including future Nobel winners, Enrico Fermi, Werner Heisenberg, Paul Dirac, and Wolfgang Pauli. In 1924 Goeppert passed the university's abitur entrance examinations and enrolled there in the fall. Among her professors were three Nobel prize winners: Max Born, James Franck, and Adolf Otto Reinhold Windaus. In 1930 Goeppert married Dr Joseph Edward Mayer, the assistant of James Franck. The couple moved to the United States, Mayer's home country.

For the next few years, Goeppert-Mayer worked at unofficial or volunteer positions at the university at which her husband was professor -- first at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore from 1931-39, then Columbia University in 1940-46, and after that the University of Chicago. During this time, Goeppert-Mayer was unable to gain a professional appointment at Joseph's universities due in part to both sexism and strict rules against nepotism. However, she was able to find other opportunities, including a teaching position at Sarah Lawrence College, a research position with Columbia University's Substitute Alloy Materials Project and Opacity Project, and some time at Los Alamos Laboratory.

During Mayer's time at the University of Chicago, Goeppert-Mayer was able to become a voluntary Associate Professor of Physics at the school. In addition, when Argonne National Laboratory came into existence on July 1, 1946, Goeppert-Mayer was offered a part-time job there as Senior Physicist in the Theoretical Physics Division. It was during her time at Chicago and Argonne that she developed a model for the nuclear shell structure, work for which she received a Nobel Prize in Physics in 1963 together with Eugene Paul Wigner and J. Hans D. Jensen.

Goeppert-Mayer's model explained why certain numbers of nucleons in the nucleus of an atom cause an atom to be extremely stable. This had been baffling scientists for some time. These numbers are called "magic numbers". She postulated, against the received wisdom of the time, that the nucleus is like a series of closed shells and pairs of neutrons and protons like to couple together in what is called spin orbit coupling. This is like the Earth spinning on its axis as the Earth itself is spinning around the Sun. Goeppert-Mayer described the idea elegantly:

"Think of a room full of waltzers. Suppose they go round the room in circles, each circle enclosed within another. Then imagine that in each circle, you can fit twice as many dancers by having one pair go clockwise and another pair go counterclockwise. Then add one more variation; all the dancers are spinning twirling round and round like tops as they circle the room, each pair both twirling and circling. But only some of those that go counterclockwise are twirling counterclockwise; the others are twirling clockwise while circling counterclockwise. The same is true of those that are dancing around clockwise; some twirl clockwise, others twirl counterclockwise."

At the same time, there were German scientists working on exactly the same thing. After they had published their results, Goeppert-Mayer sought to collaborate with them. One from the German team, Jensen, worked with her to produce a book in 1950 called Elementary Theory of Nuclear Shell Structure. In 1963 both Goeppert-Mayer and Jensen were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics "...for their discoveries concerning nuclear shell structure." She was quoted as saying, "Winning the prize wasn't half as exciting as doing the work."

During the 1940s and early 1950s, Goeppert-Mayer computed equations on opacity for Edward Teller that would be used for Teller's investigations into the possibility of a hydrogen bomb.

In 1960, Goeppert-Mayer was appointed to a position as a Full Professor at the University of California, San Diego (then known as the University of California, La Jolla). Although she suffered a stroke shortly after arriving, she continued to teach and conduct research for many years.

Death and legacy

Goeppert-Mayer died in San Diego, California, in 1972 after a heart attack the previous year left her comatose.

After her death, an award in her name was set up by the American Physical Society to honour young female physicists at the beginning of their careers. Open to all female physicists who hold PhDs, the winner receives money and the opportunity to give guest lectures about her research at four major institutions. Two of Goeppert-Mayer's former universities also honor her. The University of Chicago presents an award each year to an outstanding young woman scientist or engineer, and the University of California, San Diego hosts an annual Maria Goeppert-Mayer symposium, bringing together female researchers to discuss current science.


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