Maria Goeppert Mayer won a Nobel Prize in Nuclear Physics in 1963. She developed the nuclear shell model of atomic nuclei. She is an important woman in physics for her model of perseverance and her research discoveries. Even during times when universities would not employ her as a professor or physicist, she continued to learn, conduct research, write textbooks, pursue physics, and persevere, until she met more enlightened colleagues to collaborate on her research.
Early Life and Education
Mayer came from a family of academics. For several generations back, her relatives were professors. She was born in Germany and spent much of her life in Gottingen. At the time, this was a prime location for a person interested in physics. Her father was employed by the university and her parents ensured that she could pursue her education, even when the local school for girls was closed. After graduating from high school, she attended university (starting in 1924) intending to study mathematics, but physics sparked her interest. Mayer was a mathematics student until she attended the physics seminars given by Max Born. In an interview she recalls the seminars: "It was very nice, because usually after the seminars we’d go for a walk with Born — the whole seminar — anyone who wanted to come along, and go somewhere in the hills and have a rustic supper in one of the village inns.” Later, she changed her major to physics.
This was a time when the place to be for studying physics was Germany, and she was near the center of cutting edge ideas in nuclear physics and quantum mechanics. While at University, she spent a term in Cambridge, England, where she learned English—this would serve her well later, when she immigrated to the United States. In 1930, she earned her Ph.D. in theoretical physics.
During her time at university in Gottingen, she was mentored by other Nobel Laureates, including James Franck and Adolf Windaus.
During the Great Depression, Mayer immigrated to America with her husband, chemist Joseph E. Mayer, who became a professor at Johns Hopkins University. James Franck was also at JHU at the time. During this time, the university would not consider employing her. Mayer gave birth to a son and a daughter during their time in Baltimore. However, later her husband transferred to Columbia University and she worked at Sarah Lawrence College as a professor and researcher; her work there focused on the separation of isotopes of uranium with Harold Urey, a Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry. Through her interests and colleagues, she became a “chemical physicist” and worked on the study of the color of organic molecules.
Her career really took off when she moved to Chicago with her husband in 1946. There, she was tmore accepted (although she was still not paid and employed as a full professor) and became a professor of physics and researcher at the Institute for Nuclear Studies. She had a lot to learn about Nuclear Physics, but supportive and stimulating colleagues like Enrico Fermi worked with her.
Fermi and Mayer
In 1948, Mayer began to work with the study of magic numbers; over the next several years, she developed an explanation and began to understand the ramifications of her ideas. Meanwhile, other scientists, Wigner and Jensen, were working on these ideas as well and arrived at similar conclusions as Mayer.
They decided to write a book together and were later awarded the Nobel Prize jointly. Mayer and Jensen officially shared half the prize for their “discoveries concerning nuclear shell structure.”
Women in Physics
When she won the Nobel Prize, a local newspaper in San Diego ran the following headline “S.D. Mother Wins Nobel Prize.” At the time, she was a paid professor of physics at the University of California in San Diego/La Jolla. However, it is interesting (and perhaps representative of the times and the very real professional and social obstacles she had to overcome to be taken seriously as a professional physicist) that the newspaper characterized her as a mother and not a physicist in the headline.
Our previous selection of an important woman in physics, C.S. Wu, was not honored with the Nobel Prize with her colleagues in 1957. The fact that Mayer was honored for her work in 1963, only a few years later, was definitely a step in the right direction for the progress of women in science.
Read more about Mayer here
Read the official Nobel Prize biography, which was consulted for this blog, here
Download a PDF of the Nobel Lecture
Read an interview with Mayer at the American Institute of Physics website.