Maria Goeppert-Mayer (June 28, 1906 – February 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.
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:
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."
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.
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.