Maria Goeppert Mayer (1906-1972)
Kattowitz, German Empire (Katowice, Poland)
Digital Illustration, 24" x 32", 2022
Maria Goeppert Mayer is the theoretical physicist behind the discovery of the nuclear shell model of the atomic nucleus. Her research led her to become the second woman to win the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1963. During her doctorate, Goeppert Mayer studied the possible theory of two-photon absorption by atoms, activating a molecule to a higher electronic state. This method today is called the Goeppert Mayer (GM) unit.
In 1937, Goeppert Mayer took an unpaid assistant job at Columbia University. She was not allowed to work beside her husband at John Hopkins University due to the strict nepotism rules. As a mother of two, she had to find a way to balance work and family. Goeppert Mayer worked as a part time researcher for the Manhattan Project during World War II, studying the separations of isotope by photochemical reactions. Utilizing her previous research, she worked with physicist Edward Teller to build the Teller “Super” bomb. Once the war ended, Goeppert Mayer developed a mathematical model for the nuclear shell structure with seven magical numbers: 2, 8, 20, 28, 50, 82, and 126. Her findings led her to share the Nobel Prize in Physics with a handful of other male scientists.
Goeppert Mayer went largely unrecognized for her work at The University of Chicago at the time, working as an unpaid volunteer faculty member because of the nepotism rules. She passed away at age 65, shortly after the Maria Goeppert Mayer Award was created to honor young female physicists.