Maria Goeppert-Mayer (1906 – 1972) was a German-born American theoretical physicist, and Nobel laureate in Physics for proposing the nuclear shell model of the atomic nucleus. She is the second female laureate in physics after Marie Curie.
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Early Life and Education
Maria Goeppert was born in Kattowitz, Upper Silesia, then part of Germany (and now Katowice, Poland). In 1910, her father was a Professor of Pediatrics to Gottingen where she completed her education.
In 1924 she enrolled at the University at Gottingen, where she completed her undergraduate degreeand doctorate (1930) in theoretical physics. Her doctoral committee comprised of three Nobel prize winners, including Max Born, her supervisor.
Emigration to America
During her PhD, she married John Mayer, an American physicist and with him, moved in 1930 to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Although not employed at the university, partly due to sexism and strong rules against nepotism, she continued to work on physics with her husband and Karl Herzfeld while she wrote papers on the color of organic molecules.
In 1939 Mayer received a position at Columbia University, with Goeppert-Mayer teaching at All-Women Colleges for one year and working at the S. A. M. Laboratory, dedicated to the separation of isotopes of uranium. In 1946, they moved to Chicago where she became Professor of Physics in the Institute for Nuclear Studies.
It was during her time at Chicago that she developed a model for the nuclear shell structure, work for which she received a Nobel Prize in Physics in 1963 together with Eugene Paul Wigner and J. Hans D. Jensen.
Goeppert-Mayer’s model explained why certain numbers of nucleons in the nucleus of an atom cause an atom to be extremely stable. These numbers are called “magic numbers”. She postulated, against the received wisdom of the time, that the nucleus is like a series of closed shells and pairs of neutrons and protons like to couple together in what is called spin orbit coupling.
During the 1940s and early 1950s, Goeppert-Mayer computed equations on opacity for Edward Teller that would be used for Teller’s investigations into the possibility of a hydrogen bomb.
In 1960, Goeppert-Mayer was appointed to a position as a Full Professor at the University of California, San Diego (then known as the University of California, La Jolla). Although she suffered a stroke shortly after arriving, she continued to teach and conduct research for many years. SHe died in 1972 of a heart attack.