Maria Goeppert-Mayer was a theoretical physicist who developed the shell model for the atomic nucleus. She won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1963, becoming one of only two women to ever receive this honor. She made several fundamental contributions to atomic and molecular physics and chemistry, in addition to her work with the Manhattan project during World War II.
Born in 1906 in Kattowicz, Germany, Maria spent her early life in Göttingen. Her father was a professor of pediatrics and her mother was a music teacher. She studied physics and the new field of quantum mechanics at the University of Göttingen. In 1930, Dr. Goeppert received her PhD in theoretical physics with a doctoral thesis on the theory of two-photon absorption and emission. Her predictions were confirmed by the advent of lasers in the 1960s. This phenomenon is widely used today in microscopy.
After her marriage to chemist Joseph Mayer in 1930, the couple moved to Johns Hopkins University and had two children. While her husband worked in the Chemistry department, Dr. Goeppert-Mayer was not offered formal employment, but she continued to push the boundaries of research in physics by branching on to more complex chemical systems. She published the first calculation of the spectrum of a complex organic molecule, benzene. She became widely acclaimed as an expert on complex molecular spectra in the 1940s.
According to one of her biographers:
"Throughout her nine years at Hopkins, Maria's position hardly altered. She was never paid more than a few hundred a year, never had a place at the university in the sense of a voice, or a vote in departmental matters, and her rank was always volunteer associate. She had seen an empty office and asked if she might have it; she was refused, and given a room in the attic instead. In other words, Maria was simply tolerated... [an] academic wife whose husband has a fairly secure position, so that the university considers her a captive who can be hired with no guarantees, for as little as possible, and dropped whenever it becomes expedient. All over the States, even with the eroding of so-called nepotism laws that forbid the hiring of husband and wife in the same college, or department, fringe-benefit wives [were] exploited by institutions large and small, public and private."
The Mayers moved to Columbia University in 1939. At the start of World War II, she was invited to join the Manhattan Project to assist in the development of the atomic bomb. There she worked with Harold Urey on the separation of uranium isotopes used for nuclear fission.
Dr. Goeppert-Mayer was then offered an unpaid professorship at the University of Chicago and a paid position as a theorist at the Argonne National Laboratory. Working with the biggest names in nuclear physics, she performed her internationally acclaimed work on the nuclear shell model. Until then, Niels Bohr’s model of the atom (Nobel Prize in Physics, 1922) had held the highest standard. Her theory of ‘magic numbers’ of protons and neutrons arranged in shells in the nucleus earned the 1963 Physics Nobel Prize and the nickname “The Onion Madonna.” Edward Teller recounts working with her: “...she came up with the absurd idea of opposing Bohr’s model of the atomic nucleus. I quite roundly criticized her. But Maria turned out to be right, and, deservedly, she received the Nobel Prize.”
Maria and Joseph moved to The University of California, San Diego in 1959. Dr. Goeppert-Mayer was a professor of physics till her death in 1972.
Dr. Goeppert-Mayer is an exemplification of determination in the presence of obstacles. As a scientist, she was never afraid to challenge herself or existing scientific theories. Her love for science is evident in her words – “Winning the prize wasn’t half as exciting as doing the work itself.”