Maria Goeppert-Mayer

In 1963, Maria Goeppert-Mayer became the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize in physics. She earned the prize for her work on the structure of the atomic nucleus.

Maria Goeppert-Mayer was one of the inner circle of nuclear physicists who developed the atomic fission bomb at the secret laboratory at Los Alamos, New Mexico, during World War II. Through her theoretical research with nuclear physicists Enrico Fermi and Edward Teller, Goeppert-Mayer developed a model for the structure of atomic nuclei. In 1963, for her work on nuclear structure, she became the first woman awarded the Nobel Prize for theoretical physics, sharing the prize with J. Hans D. Jensen, a German physicist. The two scientists, who had reached the same conclusions independently, later collaborated on a book explaining their model.

An only child, Goeppert-Mayer was born Maria Göppert on July 28, 1906, in the German city of Kattowitz in Upper Silesia (now Katowice, Poland). When she was four, her father, Dr. Friedrich Göppert, was appointed professor of pediatrics at the University at Göttingen, Germany. Situated in an old medieval town, the university had historically been respected for its mathematics department, but was on its way to becoming the European center for yet another discipline—theoretical physics. Maria's mother, Maria Wolff Göppert, was a former teacher of piano and French who delighted in entertaining faculty members with lavish dinner parties and providing a home filled with flowers and music for her only daughter.

Dr. Göppert was a most progressive pediatrician for the times, as he started a well-baby clinic and believed that all children, male or female, should be adventuresome risk-takers. His philosophy on child rearing had a profound effect on his daughter, who idolized her father and treasured her long country walks with him, collecting fossils and learning the names of plants. Because the Göpperts came from several generations of university professors, it was unstated but expected that Maria would continue the family tradition.

When Maria was just eight, World War I interrupted the family's rather idyllic university life with harsh wartime deprivation. After the war, life was still hard because of postwar inflation and food shortages. Maria Göppert attended a small private school run by female suffragists to ready young girls for university studies. The school went bankrupt when Göppert had completed only two of the customary three years of preparatory school. Nonetheless, she took and passed her university entrance exam.

The University of Göttingen that Göppert entered in 1924 was in the process of becoming a center for the study of quantum mechanics—the mathematical study of the behavior of atomic particles. Many well-known physicists visited Göttingen, including Niels Bohr, a Danish physicist who developed a model of the atom. Noted physicist Max Born joined the Göttingen faculty and became a close friend of Göppert's family. Göppert, now enrolled as a student, began attending Max Born's physics seminars and decided to study physics instead of mathematics, with an eye toward teaching. Her prospects of being taken seriously were slim: there was only one female professor at Göttingen, and she taught for "love," receiving no salary.

In 1927 Göppert's father died. She continued her study, determined to finish her doctorate in physics. She spent a semester in Cambridge, England, where she learned English and met Ernest Rutherford, the discoverer of the electron. Upon her return to Göttingen, her mother began taking student boarders into their grand house. One was an American physical chemistry student from California, Joseph E. Mayer, studying in Göttingen on a grant. Over the next several years, Maria and Joe became close, going hiking, skiing, swimming and playing tennis. When they married, in 1930, Maria adopted the hyphenated form of their names. (When they later moved to the United States, the spelling of her family name was anglicized to "Goeppert.") Soon after her marriage she completed her doctorate with a thesis entitled "On Elemental Processes with Two Quantum Jumps."

After Joseph Mayer finished his studies, the young scientists moved to the United States, where he had been offered a job at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. Goeppert-Mayer found it difficult to adjust. She was not considered eligible for an appointment at the same university as her husband, but rather was considered a volunteer associate, what her biographer Joan Dash calls a "fringe benefit" wife. She had a tiny office, little pay, and no significant official responsibilities. Nonetheless, her position did allow her to conduct research on energy transfer on solid surfaces with physicist Karl Herzfeld, and she collaborated with him and her husband on several papers. Later, she turned her attention to the quantum mechanical electronic levels of benzene and of some dyes. During summers she returned to Göttingen, where she wrote several papers with Max Born on beta ray decay—the emissions of high-speed electrons that are given off by radioactive nuclei.

These summers of physics research were cut off as Germany was again preparing for war. Max Born left Germany for the safety of England. Returning to the states, Goeppert-Mayer applied for her American citizenship and she and Joe started a family. They would have two children, Marianne and Peter. Soon she became friends with Edward Teller, a Hungarian refugee who would play a key role in the development of the hydrogen bomb.

When Joe unexpectedly lost his position at Johns Hopkins, he and Goeppert-Mayer left for Columbia University in New York. There they wrote a book together, Statistical Mechanics, which became a classic in the field. As Goeppert-Mayer had no teaching credentials to place on the title page, their friend Harold Urey, a Nobel Prize-winning chemist, arranged for her to give some lectures so that she could be listed as "lecturer in chemistry at Columbia."

In New York, Goeppert-Mayer made the acquaintance of Enrico Fermi, winner of the Nobel Prize for physics for his work on radioactivity. Fermi had recently emigrated from Italy and was at Columbia on a grant researching nuclear fission. Nuclear fission—splitting an atom in a way that released energy—had been discovered by German scientists Otto Hahn, Fritz Strassmann, and Lise Meitner. The German scientists had bombarded uranium nuclei with neutrons, resulting in the release of energy. Because Germany was building its arsenal for war, Fermi had joined other scientists in convincing the United States government that it must institute a nuclear program of its own so as not to be at Hitler's mercy should Germany develop a nuclear weapon. Goeppert-Mayer joined Fermi's team of researchers, although once again the arrangement was informal and without pay.

In 1941, the United States formally entered World War II. Goeppert-Mayer was offered her first real teaching job, a half-time position at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York. A few months later she was invited by Harold Urey to join a research group he was assembling at Columbia University to separate uranium-235, which is capable of nuclear fission, from the more abundant isotope uranium-238, which is not. The group, which worked in secret, was given the code name SAM—Substitute Alloy Metals. The uranium was to be the fuel for a nuclear fission bomb.

Like many scientists, Goeppert-Mayer had mixed feelings about working on the development of an atomic bomb. (Her friend Max Born, for instance, had refused to work on the project.) She had to keep her work a secret from her husband, even though he himself was working on defense-related work, often in the Pacific. Moreover, while she loved her adopted country, she had many friends and relatives in Germany. To her relief, the war in Europe was over early in 1945, before the bomb was ready. However, at Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico the bomb was still being developed. At Edward Teller's request, Goeppert-Mayer made several visits to Los Alamos to meet with other physicists, including Niels Bohr and Enrico Fermi, who were working on uranium fission. In August of 1945 atomic bombs were dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with a destructive ferocity never before seen. According to biographer Joan Dash, by this time Goeppert-Mayer's ambivalence about the nuclear weapons program had turned to distaste, and she was glad she had played a relatively small part in the development of such a deadly weapon.

After the war, Goeppert-Mayer returned to teach at Sarah Lawrence. Then, in 1946, her husband was offered a full professorship at the University of Chicago's newly established Institute of Nuclear Studies, where Fermi, Teller, and Urey were also working. Goeppert-Mayer was offered an unpaid position as voluntary associate professor; the university had a rule, common at the time, against hiring both a husband and wife as professors. However, soon afterwards, Goeppert-Mayer was asked to become a senior physicist at the Argonne National Laboratory, where a nuclear reactor was under construction. It was the first time she had been offered a position and salary that put her on an even footing with her colleagues.

Again her association with Edward Teller was valuable. He asked her to work on his theory about the origin of the elements. They found that some elements, such as tin and lead, were more abundant than could be predicted by current theories. The same elements were also unusually stable. When Goeppert-Mayer charted the number of protons and neutrons in the nuclei of these elements, she noticed that the same few numbers recurred over and over again. Eventually she began to call these her "magic numbers." When Teller began focusing his attention on nuclear weapons and lost interest in the project, Goeppert-Mayer began discussing her ideas with Enrico Fermi.

Goeppert-Mayer had identified seven "magic numbers": 2, 8, 20, 28, 50, 82, and 126. Any element that had one of these numbers of protons or neutrons was very stable, and she wondered why. She began to think of a shell model for the nucleus, similar to the orbital model of electrons spinning around the nucleus. Perhaps the nucleus of an atom was something like an onion, with layers of protons and neutrons revolving around each other. Her "magic numbers" would represent the points at which the various layers, or "shells," would be complete. Goeppert-Mayer's likening of the nucleus to an onion led fellow physicist Wolfgang Pauli to dub her the "Madonna of the Onion." Further calculations suggested the presence of "spin-orbit coupling": the particles in the nucleus, she hypothesized, were both spinning on their axes and orbiting a central point—like spinning dancers, in her analogy, some moving clockwise and others counter-clockwise.

Goeppert-Mayer published her hypothesis in Physical Review in 1949. A month before her work appeared, a similar paper was published by J. Hans D. Jensen of Heidelberg, Germany. Goeppert-Mayer and Jensen began corresponding and eventually decided to write a book together. During the four years that it took to complete the book, Jensen stayed with the Goeppert-Mayers in Chicago. Elementary Theory of Nuclear Shell Structure gained widespread acceptance on both sides of the Atlantic for the theory they had discovered independently.

In 1959, Goeppert-Mayer and her husband were both offered positions at the University of California's new San Diego campus. Unfortunately, soon after settling into a new home in La Jolla, California, Goeppert-Mayer suffered a stroke which left an arm paralyzed. Some years earlier she had also lost the hearing in one ear. Slowed but not defeated, Goeppert-Mayer continued her work.

In November of 1963 Goeppert-Mayer received word that she and Jensen were to share the Nobel Prize for physics with Eugene Paul Wigner, a colleague studying quantum mechanics who had once been skeptical of her magic numbers. Goeppert-Mayer had finally been accepted as a serious scientist. According to biographer Olga Opfell, she would later comment that the work itself had been more exciting than winning the prize.

Goeppert-Mayer continued to teach and do research in San Diego, as well as grow orchids and give parties at her house in La Jolla. She enjoyed visits with her granddaughter, whose parents were daughter Marianne, an astronomer, and son-in-law Donat Wentzel, an astrophysicist. Her son Peter was now an assistant professor of economics, keeping up Goeppert-Mayer's family tradition of university teaching.

Goeppert-Mayer was made a member of the National Academy of Sciences and received several honorary doctorates. Her health, however, began to fail. A lifelong smoker debilitated by her stroke, she began to have heart problems. She had a pacemaker inserted in 1968. Late in 1971, Goeppert-Mayer suffered a heart attack that left her in a coma. She died on February 20, 1972.

Further Reading on Maria Goeppert-Mayer

Dash, Joan, The Triumph of Discovery: Women Scientists Who Won the Nobel Prize, Messner, 1991.

Opfell, Olga S., The Lady Laureates: Women Who Have Won the Nobel Prize, Scarecrow, 1978, pp. 194-208.

Sach, Robert G., Maria Goeppert-Mayer, 1906-1972: A Biographical Memoir, National Academy of Science of the United States, 1979.