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Maria Goeppert Mayer

September 9, 2011

When the conversation turns to women scientists, my first thought is Marie Curie. The same must be true for nearly everyone, non-scientists included. Then, because of my materials background, I think of Mildred Dresselhaus, whom I wrote about in a previous article (Ms. Carbon, March 12, 2007). After that, it might be VLSI pioneer, Lynn Conway.

Then, in a later place, but only because I'm not a nuclear physicist, would be Maria Goeppert Mayer. Mayer, the second woman to win the Nobel Prize in Physics after Marie Curie, was honored by the issuance of a US postage stamp on June 16, 2011.[1-4] Mayer's commemorative first-class postage stamp is one of a series entitled, "American Scientists." Her stamp was issued along with others that commemorate an eclectic mixture of scientists that included Melvin Calvin, Asa Gray and Severo Ochoa.[4]

Maria Goeppert Mayer US postage stamp.

Maria Goeppert Mayer
US postage stamp.

(Via Argonne National Laboratory))

Maria Goeppert Mayer (June 28, 1906 - February 20, 1972) was born and educated in Germany. She received a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Göttingen in 1930, having been a student of such luminaries as Max Born and James Franck. Immediately after receiving her degree, she married Joseph Edward Mayer, an American student on a fellowship studying with Franck, and the Mayers emigrated to the United States. Joseph Mayer is famous in his own right. He was elected to the presidency of the American Physical Society in 1973.

For various reasons that were symptomatic of that period, it was impossible for Maria to find permanent employment as a scientist, and she was relegated to the diminished role of following her husband. While Joseph Mayer was at Johns Hopkins University, Maria did unpaid, volunteer research at the university. She did work briefly at Los Alamos, where her skill set ideally matched the problems at hand.

When Joseph Mayer moved to the University of Chicago, Maria served as an unpaid Associate Professor of Physics. Nearby Argonne National Laboratory was founded on July 1, 1946, and Maria assumed a part-time position as a Senior Physicist in the Theoretical Physics Division. She worked for fifteen years at Argonne.[2]

Maria Goeppert Mayer

Maria Goeppert Mayer as a young woman (left),
and in 1963, (right).

(Via Wikimedia Commons))

While at the University of Chicago and Argonne, Maria developed her Nobel Prize work on the nuclear shell model. I wrote about nuclear shell theory in a previous article (The Island of Stability, October 28, 2010). It was Mayer who explained why certain numbers of nucleons in a nucleus (2, 8, 20, 28, 50, 82 and 126) are extremely stable.

Nuclear shell theory predicts an island of stability centered around magic numbers of protons and neutrons. Some isotopes of superheavy elements may be stable for extended periods, since they exist on these islands. For example, a nuclear isomer of Ununquadium (289bUuq) has a half-life of about 66 seconds.

In 1960, Maria Goeppert Mayer and Joseph Mayer became Professors of Physics at the University of California at San Diego. The University of California at San Diego was the first institution to offer her a permanent faculty position at age 54.[1] Maria suffered a stroke shortly after arriving at San Diego, but she was a productive scientist there through 1970. She shared that 1963 Nobel Prize in Physics with J. Hans D. Jensen and Eugene Wigner. Her death, in 1972, was a result of a stroke suffered in the prior year.

Maria Goeppert Mayer's career has become a rallying point for women in the sciences. The American Physical Society has an award in her name for young female physicists just beginning their careers. The University of Chicago has an annual award for an outstanding young woman scientist or engineer. The University of California at San Diego has an annual Maria Goeppert-Mayer symposium for female scientists. The Venusian crater, Goeppert-Mayer, is named after her.[4]

Crater Goeppert Mayer on Venus

Crater Goeppert Mayer on Venus. The crater is at coordinates 59°42'N 26°48'E. (Image: NASA/JPL).


  1. UCSD Nobel Laureate Maria Goeppert Mayer to Appear on New U.S. Postal Service Stamp June 16, University of California, San Diego, Library.
  2. Louise Lerner, "Nobel Prize-winning physicist honored with U.S. postage stamp," Argonne National Laboratory Press Release, July 28, 2011.
  3. American Scientists, Beyondtheperf.com, December 16, 2010.
  4. Maria Goeppert Mayer Page on Wikipedia.

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