Name: Maria Goeppert-Mayer
Fields: Nuclear physics
Claim to fame: The second woman to win the Nobel Prize for physics
Maria Goeppert-Mayer (1906-1972), the ground-breaking theoretical physicist, has the unique distinction of being the only career volunteer – although many women scientists
of her generation also volunteered or were underpaid – to win a Nobel Prize, which she received for her nuclear shell model of the atomic nucleus.
The generation game
Maria Goeppert was born in 1906 in Kattowitz (or Katowice in Polish) which was then part of German Prussia but today lies in Poland. She was the only child of Friedrich and Maria Goeppert. Her father, whom Maria idolised, was a sixthgeneration university professor and he expected Maria to follow suit.
He advised her to “never become just a woman”, i.e. a housewife, as was still generally the norm at the time. Later in her life, she recalled: “Ever since I was a very small child, I knew that when I grew up, I was expected to acquire some training or education which would enable me to earn a living so that I would not be dependent on marriage.”
In 1910, the family moved to Göttingen, Lower Saxony, where her father became professor of paediatrics at the town’s university. He was also director of a children’s hospital and founded a day-care centre for the children of working mothers. He loved and was loved by children. As a sign of this dedication, the family, despite their prosperity, dined on turnip soup and pigs’ ears during the hyperinfl ation of the early 920s to save food for the children at Friedrich’s clinic.
Not only was her home life infused with learning, but she was surrounded by intelligence. Her young mind was exposed to the brilliance of some of the best brains of the time, including future Nobel laureates Enrico Fermi, Werner Heisenberg and Wolfgang Pauli.
The university town, where academics – among the best-paid and most admired professions in Germany at the time – were like royalty, had a buzzing social scene. The parties thrown by Maria’s mother in öttingen set the standard for hospitality, and the daughter – admired for her mix of beauty and brains – in herited her mother’s socialising and entertaining finesse.
In 1930, Maria married Joseph Edward Mayer, an American Rockefeller fellow who was working in Göttingen and became a lodger in their house after her father died. Joseph was the assistant of James Franck, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist who regarded Maria as “at least a niece”. That same year, the couple moved to the United States, where they were to build their academic careers and have two children. In 1933, the year Adolf Hitler came to power, Maria acquired American citizenship. Over the coming decades, Maria would work as a physicist in some of America’s top universities, but mostly as a volunteer.
In 1972, the coma she had succumbed to in the previous year fi nally claimed her life.
With the support of her family and their friends, Maria Goeppert managed to overcome the inadequacies of the education available to women at the time. The only privately endowed school which prepared girls for the abitur, the entrance examination for university, shut its doors during the hyperinfl ation of the early 1920s. The teachers, however, continued to instruct their pupils voluntarily.
That is why in 1924, Maria was able to take the abitur examination in Hanover and begin her studies at Göttingen University. The Nobel laureate Max Born, who played a pivotal role in establishing quantum mechanics, became her mentor. “She went through all my courses with great industry and conscientiousness”, he recalled, “yet remained a gay and witty member of ‘Göttingen society’.”
The year 1930 was to prove momentous for her. She earned her doctorate in theoretical physics, married and moved to the United States. Her arrival in America coincided with the Depression, when few universities were hiring. In addition, the strict rules against nepotism meant that the fact that she was a professor’s wife did not help her prospects, nor did the US’ late recognition of quantum mechanics.
But her fascination with physics and the encouragement of her husband, who was viewed as more of a feminist than Maria, led her to work as a volunteer. “I worked for a number of years without pay just for the fun of doing physics,” she reminisced. From 1931 to 1939, she volunteered at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, where she managed to produce ten papers and a textbook. Between 1940 and 1946, she was at Columbia University.
Physics in a nuclear nutshell
During World War II, she got her first-ever paying job, at Sarah Lawrence College for women. She also worked on uranium isotope separation under Harold Urey and others who helped develop the atom bomb.
The University of Chicago, to which she moved in 1946, was the first place she was greeted with open arms. There, she became a professor in the Physics Department and at the Institute for Nuclear Studies, as well the Argonne National Laboratory. It was in Chicago that she carried out the work for which she would earn a Nobel Prize in 1963: she developed a model for the nuclear shell structure. She also collaborated on a book on the subject with a German scientist, Hans Jensen, who worked in the same field and was a co-winner of the Nobel Prize.
In 1960, Maria finally became a full professor at the University of California, San Diego. Although suffering a stroke shortly after arriving, she continued to teach and conduct research there for many years.
Maria Goeppert-Mayer was the second woman to win a Nobel Prize in physics after Marie Curie. The fact that she worked for three decades in three fields for three different universities as a volunteer is unparalleled in the annals of Nobel history. She only gained paid tenure at the age of 53!
Her model for the structure of the nuclear shell explained the baffling “magic numbers” of nucleons in the nucleus of an atom which cause an atom to be extremely stable. She argued 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.
After receiving her Nobel, she admitted that: “Winning the prize wasn‘t half as exciting as doing the work.”
Following her death, an award in her name was set up by the American Physical Society to honour young female physicists.