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Sat Nov 10, 2012, 11:58 AM

Today in Women's History: Maria Goeppert-Mayer won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1963

(shared with fellow researcher J. H. D. Jensen)

She was the first American woman and second woman (after Marie Curie) to win the Noble Prize for Physics. She was given the award for her work developing the nuclear shell structure.

“Winning the prize wasn't half as exciting as doing the work itself.”

It's a good thing she had that attitude, because for most of her career she couldn't land a paying job with a university, despite her abilities.


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 volunteer.

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.


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