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Maria Goeppert Mayer - Argonne’s Nobel Laureate

Maria Goeppert Mayer was affiliated with Argonne from 1946 to 1960. She is one of only two women to receive the Nobel Prize in Physics (the other is Marie Curie, in 1903). Born in Germany, Maria Goeppert attended the University of Gottingen. Initially planning to major in mathematics, she changed to physics after attending a seminar on the newly emerging field of quantum physics, taught by famed physicist Max Born. The physics faculty included several luminaries, such as James Franck and Adolf Otto Reinhold Windaus. In 1930, when Maria defended her doctoral dissertation—on double photon reactions—Franck, Windaus, and Born served on the committee. (All four scientists would receive a Nobel Prize.)

Maria Goeppert Mayer (fourth from right) poses with her colleagues in front of Argonne’s Physics building. (Image by Argonne National Laboratory.)

While in school, Maria met her future husband, physical chemist Joseph Edward Mayer, an American working with physicist James Franck. After marrying, they moved to the United States, where Joseph Mayer joined the faculty of Johns Hopkins University.

Because nepotism rules in the 1930s prohibited the awarding of faculty appointments to both members of a married couple, Maria was unable to secure employment in her field. Instead, she continued her own physics research — chiefly, applying quantum mechanics to chemical problems — without benefit of compensation. 

During World War II, Goeppert Mayer worked for the Manhattan Project — first, on isotope separation at Columbia University and, later, with Edward Teller at Los Alamos Laboratory.

After the Mayers moved to Chicago in 1946, Maria received a faculty appointment, splitting her time between the University of Chicago’s Institute for Nuclear Studies and the newly opened Argonne National Laboratory, as a Senior Physicist in the Theoretical Physics Division.

It was during this time that she developed a mathematical model for the structure of nuclear shells, the work for which she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1963, shared with J. Hans D. Jensen and Eugene Paul Wigner. Goeppert Mayer’s model explained why certain numbers of nucleons in the nucleus of an atom cause an atom to be extremely stable” — a phenomenon that had baffled scientists for some time. These numbers, dubbed magic numbers,” represent the protons and neutrons arranged in shells in an atom’s nucleus.

Grappling with her research, Goeppert Mayer had an opportunity to discuss a problem with physicist Enrico Fermi, who asked if there was evidence of spin-orbit coupling. His question reportedly stunned Goeppert Mayer, who later recalled: When he said it, it all fell into place. In 10 minutes I knew…I finished my computations that night. Fermi taught it to his class the next week.” Goeppert Mayer’s 1948 theory explained why some nuclei were more stable than others and why some elements were rich in isotopes.

Maria Goeppert Mayer died in 1972. Today, in her memory, Argonne awards the annual Maria Goeppert Mayer Fellowship internationally to outstanding doctoral scientists and engineers who are at early points in promising careers.