The co-winner of the 1963 Nobel Prize in Physics was Maria Goeppert Mayer – one of only two women to receive it since Marie Curie back in 1903.
In its biographical entry for her, the Nobel Prize Foundation describes how, in the spring of 1924, she enrolled at the University at Gottingen, intending to become a mathematician, but found herself more attracted to physics. “This was the time when quantum mechanics was young and exciting,” it says.
Apart from that poetic observation, her Nobel biography describes her career in science and makes the astonishing claim that in 1946, having become a US citizen in 1933, she received an offer to work in Chicago.
“This was the first place where she was not considered a nuisance, but greeted with open arms,” it says.
It was quite an adventure – from nuisance to Nobel Prize – for Maria Goeppert, born on 28 June 1906, in Kattowitz, Germany (now Katowice, Poland).
In 1910 her father, Friedrich Goeppert, moved his family to Gottingen, Germany, where he’d been hired as a professor of paediatrics at the university. Her biographer, Robert G Sachs, says the move “came to dominate the whole structure of her education”.
Writing in volume 50 of Biographical Memoirs (1979), published by the US National Academy of Sciences, Sachs, a noted American theoretical physicist, says Gottingen University “was at the height of its prestige, especially in the fields of mathematics and physics”.
At Gottingen Goeppert met and studied under some of the leading lights of mathematics and physics, among them James Franck, co-winner of the 1925 Nobel Prize in Physics, and Max Born, who played a leading role in the development of quantum mechanics and won the 1954 Nobel prize in Physics.
In 1924, Born invited her to join his physics seminar, “with the result that her interests started to shift from mathematics to physics”, Sachs says.
Years later, he notes, she would say that she was proud to be the seventh consecutive generation of university professor on her father’s side.
In 1930 she received her PhD in physics. Sachs says her thesis, on the theoretical treatment of double photon processes, was described many years later by Nobel Prize-winning physicist Eugene Wigner “as a masterpiece of clarity and concreteness”.
Meanwhile, Joseph Mayer, an American chemical physicist, had come to Gottingen to work with Franck, and in 1930 he and Goeppert married. Not long afterwards, the couple moved to the US when Joseph was appointed an associate professor at Johns Hopkins University, in Maryland.
Here, however, nepotism rules prohibited the awarding of faculty appointments to both members of a married couple, so she worked as a volunteer and continued her own research when and where she could.
In 1939 Joseph was hired at Columbia University in New York; Maria was given office space and allowed to work but received no salary.
During World War II she participated in the Manhattan Project, at Columbia University and at Los Alamos with Edward Teller, on the development of the atomic bomb.
In 1946, Maria and Joseph moved to Chicago, where, as the Nobel biography says, her abilities as a scientist were fully recognised.
She was employed at the University of Chicago’s Institute for Nuclear Studies, and at Argonne National Laboratory, where she began working with Edward Teller on a project to determine the origin of elements.
An article published by the Argonne National Laboratory says it was during this time that “she developed a mathematical model for the structure of nuclear shells”, the work for which she was awarded the Nobel Prize, shared with J Hans D Jensen and Eugene Wigner.
“Goeppert Mayer’s model explained why certain numbers of nucleons in the nucleus of an atom cause an atom to be extremely stable – a phenomenon that had baffled scientists for some time. These numbers, dubbed ‘magic numbers’, represent the protons and neutrons arranged in shells in an atom’s nucleus.
In August 1948, her paper summarising the evidence for a shell model of the nucleus was published in the journal Physical Review.”
The following year, an article by the American Physical Society says, she refined her theory. “As she was sending her paper off to the Physical Review for publication, she became aware of a paper by Hans Jensen and colleagues, who had independently come up with the same result. She asked that her paper be delayed to be published in the same issue as theirs, though hers ended up being published in the issue after theirs, in June 1949.”
Goeppert Mayer and Jensen became friends and in 1955 wrote a book together on the nuclear shell model, Elementary Theory of Nuclear Shell Structure.
Goeppert Mayer was appointed to a full professorship at the University of California, San Diego in 1960, but suffered a stroke soon after. She never fully recovered and died on 20 February 1972.
Jeff Glorfeld is a former senior editor of The Age newspaper in Australia, and is now a freelance journalist based in California, US.
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