Maria Goeppert-Mayer

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Thank you to Jill S. Tietjen, President and CEO of Technically Speaking, Inc. and regular contributor to Grandma got STEM for this remembrance of Maria Goeppert-Mayer.

The San Diego, California newspaper headline announcing Maria Goeppert-Mayer as the first American woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Physics (1963), read “S.D. Mother Wins Nobel Prize.”  Goeppert-Mayer spent much of her career as a volunteer, unpaid, due to the fact that her husband was a university professor and many universities had rules against hiring family members (nepotism).  In spite of this treatment, she loved physics and made seminal contributions to the field.

After emigrating from Germany to the U.S. (her husband Joseph Mayer was an American who studied in Germany and boarded at her parent’s house), Goeppert-Mayer was not considered eligible for appointments at universities where her husband taught chemistry.  She worked as a volunteer performing research and writing papers.

Goeppert-Mayer was one of the group of nuclear physicists who developed the atomic fission bomb at the secret laboratory at Los Alamos, New Mexico during World War II (the Manhattan Project).  She developed a model for the structure of atomic nuclei, for which she shared the 1963 Nobel Prize in Physics with a man who had independently reached the same conclusions.  Later, they would write a book together explaining their model.

Her first paid job occurred in 1946, when she was asked to join Argonne National Laboratory as a senior physicist.  There she worked with what she called the magic numbers – 2, 8, 20, 28, 50, 82, and 126.  Any element that had any one of these numbers of protons or neutrons was very stable.  She conceived of a shell model for the nucleus.  Further she proposed “spin-orbit coupling” – particles in the nucleus were like spinning dancers, both spinning on their axes and orbiting a central point.

She and Joseph both accepted positions at The University of California’s San Diego campus in 1959 and they moved to La Jolla, California.  She was made a member of the National Academy of Sciences and received several honorary doctorates.

In her spare time, she grew orchids and gave parties at her home.  She and Joseph had two children, Marianne and Peter.  I had the privilege of meeting her son when she was inducted posthumously to the National Women’s Hall of Fame.

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