"For a long time I have considered even the craziest ideas about atom nucleus... and suddenly I discovered the truth."
Maria Goeppert-Mayer was born on June 28, 1906 in Katowice, Poland. In 1910 she moved with her parents to Gottingen, Germany. She enrolled at the University at Gottingen in the spring of 1924 with the expectation of pursuing a career in mathematics. In 1930 Maria Goeppert married U.S. chemical physicist Joseph E. Mayer.
"Mathematics began to seem too much like puzzle solving. Physics is puzzle solving, too, but of puzzles created by nature, not by the mind of man."
Source: Maria Goeppert-Mayer, A Life of One's Own by J. Dash
But soon she became attracted to physics and the developing field of quantum mechanics. In 1930 she took her doctorate in theoretical physics under the direction of Nobel Prize Winners Max Born, James Franck, and Adolf Windaus.
Together with her husband, Joseph Edward Mayer, they moved to Baltimore and worked at Johns Hopkins University, Maryland. In 1939 they went to Columbia University. There she worked under the direction of Harold Urey at the Strategic Alloy Metals Laboratory which researched the separation of isotopes of uranium for the atomic bomb project. She co-authored a text entitled Statistical Mechanics (1940) with her husband. After the war, 1945, she took a professorship of physics at the Institute for Nuclear Studies, University of Chicago, under the influence of Enrico Fermi.
In 1948, Maria Goeppert-Mayer began work on nuclear shell structure and the meaning of the "magic numbers" - those nuclei that have a special number of protons. She postulated these numbers to be the shell numbers of a shell model, a "nuclear counterpart to the closed shells of electrons" at the atomic level. In 1950 she met and began a collaboration with Johannes Hans Daniel Jensen which led to the publication of the book entitled Elementary Theory of Nuclear Shell Structure (1955). She achieved the rank of full professor in 1959. In 1963, Maria Goeppert-Mayer was awarded the Nobel Prize jointly with Hans Jensen for their work on the shell model of nuclear structure, i.e. their discoveries concerning the organization of neutrons and protons within atomic nuclei. She won the Nobel Prize in Physics for her ground breaking work in models of the nucleus of atoms.
One of her former students at Johns Hopkins, Robert Sachs, brought her to Argonne at "a nice consulting salary". Sachs would later become Argonne's director. While there, she learned most of her nuclear theory and set up a system of "magic numbers" to represent the numbers of protons and neutrons, arranged in shells, in the atom's nucleus. While collecting data to support nuclear shells, she was at first unable to marshal a theoretical explanation. During a discussion of the problem with Enrico Fermi, he casually asked: "Incidentally, is there any evidence of spin-orbit coupling?" Goeppert Mayer was stunned. She recalled: "When he said it, it all fell into place. In 10 minutes I knew... I finished my computations that night. Fermi taught it to his class the next week". Goeppert Mayer's 1948 theory explained why some nuclei were more stable than others and why some elements were rich in isotopes.
When Maria Goeppert-Mayer won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1963 she became only the second U.S. woman ever to win a Nobel prize, and the first U.S. woman to do so in physics. Her work promoted the theory that the stability of atomic nuclei is due to the arrangement of the protons and neutrons in relatively fixed shells or orbits.
Maria Goeppert-Mayer came to the University of California, San Diego, in 1960 as a professor of physics. At San Diego she taught while conducting research in nuclear physics under grants administered by Keith Brueckner. During this period she publically encouraged young women to pursue careers in the sciences. She was a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the Akademie der Wissenschafter in Heidelberg, and the Philosophical Society. After a protracted illness, she died in San Diego on February 20, 1972.
- Johnson, Karen E., 1986. Maria Goeppert Mayer: Atoms, Molecules, and Nuclear Shells. Physics Today, 39 (September): 44-49. [On her work during 1930-1946 which gained her a Nobel Prize]
- Sachs, Robert G., 1979. Maria Goeppert Mayer, June 28, 1906-February 20, 1972. Biographical Memoirs of the National Academy of Sciencs, 50: 311-328.
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Last Updated: 21 October 2007