Today is Ada Lovelace Day – a day dedicated to discussing influential women of science! I decided to talk about Maria Goeppert-Mayer, one of two women to win the Nobel Prize in physics (the other was Marie Curie). You can read more about Ada Lovelace in this past blog post.
Maria Mayer was born in 1906, in what was then Germany. In 1910, the family moved to Göttingen, where her father had a job as a Professor of Pediatrics. Her father was in the 7th generation of university scholars in his family, and so it was expected that Maria would get an education. Maria went to public and private schools, taking the entrance exam for the University at Göttingen in 1924. She originally intended to be a math major, but switched to physics after taking a physics seminar with Max Born. Other students of Born’s included Fermi, Oppenheimer, and Dirac. Maria got her PhD in physics in 1930. For her dissertation, she she calculated the “probability that an electron orbiting an atom’s nucleus would emit two photons of light as it jumped to an orbit closer to the nucleus.” (http://www.sdsc.edu/ScienceWomen/mayer.html) Her calculation was experimentally confirmed in the 1960s.
She married Joseph Mayer, a physical chemist, in 1930, and moved with him to Baltimore, where he had a position at Johns Hopkins University. Because of anti-nepotism laws, Maria couldn’t have a paid position at the university and instead became a “volunteer associate”. Nevertheless, until the Mayers left Johns Hopkins in 1938, Maria produced 10 papers, a textbook, and had her daughter.
After her husband lost his job at Johns Hopkins, the Mayers went to Columbia University. She still could not hold a paid position at Columbia, but she still worked in physics, becoming a member of Enrico Fermi’s lab. When WWII started, she received a part time, paid teaching position at Sarah Lawrence College. She also started working on a secret project regarding fuel for nuclear fission weapons at Columbia. She visited the Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico several times.
When the war ended, Maria went with her husband to the University of Chicago, where she was a professor (although the work was voluntary, and she was not paid). Several months later, she got a paid position as a senior research associate at Argonne National Laboratory. There, she developed the theory that won her the Nobel Prize – that if electrons orbited the nucleus in shells, the number of electrons in the stable atoms represented “full” electron shells. These full shells were more stable than non-filled shells.
In 1956, she was elected to the National Academy of Sciences. In 1959, UC San Diego offered paid positions to both Maria and her husband. They accepted the positions and moved to California. In 1963, she won the Nobel Prize for her shell model of the nucleus. She shared the prize with another scientist who developed the shell model around the same time as she did. She became the second woman to win the Nobel Prize in physics, and the first to do so for theoretical work. No Physics Nobel Prizes have been awarded to women since Maria Goeppert-Mayer. Maria Goeppert-Mayer died in 1972.