Maria Goeppert-Mayer Biography

Maria Goeppert Mayer was a German-born American theoretical physicist and a joint winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics. This biography profiles his childhood, life, research, achievements and timeline.

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Maria Goppert-Mayer
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Kattowitz, German Empire (today Katowice, Poland)
Maria Wolff Goeppert
Friedrich Goeppert
Joseph Edward Mayer
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San Diego
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University of Göttingen
Nobel Prize for Physics (1963)

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Maria Goeppert Mayer was a German-born American theoretical physicist and a joint winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics for proposing the nuclear shell model of the atomic nucleus. She was the second female Nobel laureate in physics, the first being Marie Curie. Mayer carried on her work during a time when women were not recognized by the academia and her work was largely accepted because of her husband, Dr. Joseph Edward Mayer. She is most well-known for her research in nuclear physics, but her vast body of work in the fields of atomic and chemical physics is equally significant. Much of her work provides the theoretical foundation for several scientific discoveries in laser physics, laser isotope separation, double-beta decay, and molecular orbital calculation. At the end of World War II she attended the U.S. atomic bomb project and during this time she began her research on how atomic nuclei are built, including the puzzling "magic numbers". Even though she worked for the ‘Manhattan Project’, she was also active in the campaigns against military control of nuclear energy. Maria Goeppert Mayer was a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a corresponding member of the Akademie der Wissenschaften in Heidelberg. The American Physical Society created the Maria Goeppert Mayer Award to honor meritorious young female physicists.

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Maria Goeppert-Mayer
Childhood & Early Life
  • Maria Gerturd Käte Goeppert was born on June 28, 1906, in Kattowitz, a city in Prussia. She was the only child of Maria Wolff Goeppert and Friedrich Goeppert. Friedrich was professor of paediatrics at Georgia Augusta University in Göttingen.
  • Göppert was educated at Höhere Technische in Göttingen, a school for girls aspiring higher education.
  • In 1921, she entered the Frauenstudium, a private high school run by suffragettes that prepared girls for university entrance examination.
  • Göppert passed the exam and in 1924 entered the University of Göttingen to study mathematics.
  • Very soon, she became interested in physics, and got enrolled in the Ph.D. program.
  • In her 1930 doctoral thesis, she proposed the theory of two-photon absorption by atoms.
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  • She shifted to the US with her husband where he had been offered a position of an associate professor of chemistry at Johns Hopkins University but since Maria had no regular academic appointment there, she taught occasional courses in the chemistry department.
  • From 1930 to 1939, she collaborated with her husband and the theoretical chemical physicist Karl F. Herzfeld in the fields of chemical physics and physical chemistry.
  • Her most important research before 1949 was a paper she wrote with Alfred Lee Sklar, a student at the Catholic University of America on how chemical structure determines optical properties.
  • Her work in the analysis of the spectra of complex systems based on the Hund-Mulliken approximation was elaborated in 1939 when Sklar collaborated with Hertha Sponer, Lothar Nordheim, and Edward Teller on a systematic analysis of the benzene spectrum.
  • In 1940, Mayer and her husband published a textbook ‘Statistical Mechanics’, on the quantum mechanical basis of statistical mechanics to chemists.
  • After the outbreak of World War II, Mayer joined Harold Urey’s group, the Substitute Alloy Materials Laboratory (SAM) to solve the problem of isotope separation for the Manhattan Project.
  • In 1945, Maria Mayer was offered the position of a voluntary associate professor at the University of Chicago.
  • In 1946, she took up a half-time position as research physicist in the theoretical division of the new Argonne National Laboratory.
  • Early in 1947, Mayer began a research on the isotopic abundances and published her results in 1948, in a paper entitled ‘On Closed Shells in Nuclei’ in which she concluded that nucleons occupy separate energy levels in the nucleus.
  • In the mid 1950s, she and her husband extensively travelled abroad, giving lectures and attending conferences.
  • In 1955, Maria Goeppert Mayer and Hans D. Jensen published the first textbook dedicated entirely to the nuclear shell model, ‘Elementary Theory of Nuclear Shell Structure’.
  • In 1965, she was guest of honor at Women’s Week in Japan, and in 1966 and 1967, she was a guest lecturer in India.
Major Works
  • Her most famous work is her theory that the nucleus consists of several shells or orbital levels, and that the degree of stability of each kind of nucleus depends on the distribution of protons and neutrons among these shells. In June 1949, she announced the results of her research. Three German scientists, Otto Haxel, J. Hans D. Jensen, and Hans Suess, also arrived at the same conclusion at the same time.
Awards & Achievements
  • In 1961, it was possible to experimentally verify her doctoral thesis because of the development of the laser. To honor her original contribution to this area, the unit for the two-photon absorption cross section is named the Goeppert-Mayer (GM) unit.
  • In 1963, Goeppert Mayer, J. Hans D. Jensen, and Eugene Wigner shared the Nobel Prize for Physics "for their discoveries concerning nuclear shell structure”.
  • She received honorary degrees of Doctor of Science from Russel Sage College, Mount Holyoke College, and Smith College.
Personal Life & Legacy
  • On January 19, 1930, Goeppert married Joseph Edward Mayer, an American Rockefeller fellow who was one of the assistants to the scientist, James Franck.
  • After marriage, the couple moved to Mayer's home country, the United States. They had two children, Maria Ann and Peter Conrad.
  • On February 20, 1972, Maria Goeppert Mayer died in San Diego, California, after a stroke left her comatose.
  • She was buried at El Camino Memorial Park in San Diego.
  • The University of California at San Diego organizes an annual Maria Goeppert Mayer symposium that brings together female researchers to talk about current science.
  • In 2011, her name was included in the third issue of the ‘American Scientists’ compilation of US postage stamps.
  • Maria's idea to compare the atomic nuclei with an onion, made Wolfgang Pauli, a noted physicist, give her the nickname “The Onion Madonna”.
  • Mayer had great interest in Native American pottery and archaeology.

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- Maria Goeppert-Mayer Biography
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- March 11, 2016

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