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Maria Goeppert Mayer

June 28, 1906

Portrait of Maria Goeppert Mayer

Maria Goeppert Mayer was the second woman to win a Nobel Prize in Physics. The German-born American theoretical physicist was a professor of physics at the University of California, San Diego, a Fellow of the American Physical Society, a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and received the Golden Plate Award of the American Academy of Achievement.

Goeppert Mayer was a born on June 28, 1906, in Kattowitz, a German territory that is now Katowice, Poland. Her father was a professor and the family moved to Göttingen in 1910 when he took a job at the University of Göttingen. Goeppert Mayer started at the University of Göttingen in 1924 in mathematics. She was fascinated by quantum mechanics and left her studies of mathematics to earn a PhD in theoretical physics under Max Born. In 1930, Goeppert wrote her doctoral thesis on the theory of possible two-photon absorption by atoms.

In 1930, she met her husband, Joseph E. Mayer, who was an American chemist. They moved to Baltimore, Maryland, where he took a job as an associate professor of chemistry at Johns Hopkins University. Goeppert Mayer took part-time teaching jobs and did volunteer work while continuing her research. She collaborated with Johns Hopkins scientists, published several papers, and returned to Göttingen for three summers to continue to work with Born.

In 1937, Goeppert Mayer’s husband took a job at Columbia University. The Physics Department gave Goeppert Mayer an office, but no salary. In December 1941, she received her first paid position, as a part-time teacher at Sarah Lawrence College. In 1942, Goeppert Mayer was asked to work on the Manhattan Project by Harold Urey at Columbia. She was nicknamed “the Onion Madonna” for describing the activity of orbiting shells around the nucleus like an onion.

A year later, Goeppert Mayer and her colleagues introduced the shell model theory describing how neutrons and protons interact in the nucleus of an atom. In 1950, Goeppert Mayer and J. Hans D. Jensen collaborated to write the book Elementary Theory of Nuclear Shell Structure.

In 1960, Goeppert Mayer became a professor of physics at the University of California, San Diego. Soon after she had a stroke. She recovered and continued her studies. In 1963, Maria Goeppert Mayer, J. Hans D. Jensen, and Eugene Wigner won the Nobel Prize for “for their discoveries concerning nuclear shell structure.”

Maria Goeppert Mayer passed away in San Diego, California, at the age of 66 on February 20, 1972. Today, the American Physical Society’s Maria Goeppert Mayer Award continues to encourage, inspire, and sponsor young female scientists to make scientific history and explore knowledge. Mayer Hall at the University of California, San Diego was named after her and her husband. The school also hosts the annual Maria Goeppert Mayer Interdisciplinary Symposium.

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