MARIA GOEPPERT MAYER Biography - Famous Scientists


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Maria Goeppert-Mayer developed the nuclear shell model of atomic nuclei, an           
achievement honored when she became the third woman ever awarded the Nobel Prize     
for physics, in 1963. She shared the prize with J. Hans D. Jensen, who had           
independently developed a similar model, and with theoretician Eugene Wigner.         
Although she lived a life of scholarly privilege, with the support of her family     
and many notable scientists, she was not able to secure full-time work in her         
field until she was 53. Mayer performed most of her scientific work as a             
Maria Göppert came from a family of academics. Her father was a professor of         
pediatrics and the seventh generation of university scholars in his family. When     
Maria was four, he moved the family from Kattowitze to Göttingen so he could         
teach there. Maria idolized her father. It was expected that she acquire an           
education because of her family pedigree in academics. Maria attended a small         
private school that prepared girls for the university entrance exams. In 1924         
she enrolled at Göttingen in mathematics.                                             
Göttingen was then a world center for physics (and the new study of quantum           
mechanics). The Göppert family had friends who were prominent scientists, and         
Maria's social contacts included Niels Bohr and her teacher, Max Born. While         
attending Born's physics seminar, Maria decided to study physics instead of           
mathematics. Born's other students included Fermi, Oppenheimer, Dirac, and von       
Neumann. Maria thrived in this environment. For her dissertation (1930), 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. Her         
challenging calculation was confirmed experimentally in the 1960s.                   
Maria married physical chemist Joseph E. Mayer in 1930 and together they moved       
to Baltimore, where Joe was a professor at Johns Hopkins. Maria adopted a             
hyphenated form of their names and anglicized the spelling. She had an attic         
office and a mixed assortment of honorary job titles, but no pay. She                 
nevertheless produced ten papers, a textbook, and her daughter Maria Ann during       
her time in Baltimore. She was pregnant with her son John in 1938, when Joe           
unexpectedly lost his job. They left Hopkins for Columbia University.                 
There, they wrote a classic textbook, Statistical Mechanics. Again, Goeppert-Mayer   
had office space, but no pay. During the Second World War, she worked on uranium     
isotope separation, under Harold Urey and others who helped develop the atom         
bomb. After the war, the Columbia physicists moved to Chicago, and the Mayers         
Maria worked at the Institute for Nuclear Studies at the University of Chicago       
and at the Argonne National Laboratory. In 1948 she started her work on the           
nuclear shell model. Chicago received her willingly and gave her great respect,       
but no salary. In 1956, she was elected to the National Academy of Sciences.         
Three years later, she and Joe accepted professorships at the new University of       
California campus at San Diego.