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Nobel laureate in physics Maria Goeppert Mayer is famous for originating the shell model of nuclear physics, which provides a natural explanation for many observed nuclear properties.


She studied in Göttingen with Max Born in the late 1920’s when quantum mechanics was first emerging and became an expert in quantum chemistry. After receiving her doctorate, she married Joseph Mayer, an American chemist visiting Göttingen. When Mayer was offered a position at Johns Hopkins University, the pair moved to the United States. Due to the nepotism rules prevalent at the time, Goeppert Mayer was unable to work as a faculty member and was instead hired as an assistant in the physics department. Still, she continued to do research, publishing an important paper on double beta decay, and collaborating with Karl Herzfeld on several papers in the field of chemical physics.


In the early 1940’s, as part of the Manhattan Project, Goeppert Mayer worked at Columbia University with Harold Urey on the separation of U-235 from natural uranium. In 1946, the couple moved to the University of Chicago where her husband had been appointed a professor in the Department of Chemistry. Goeppert Mayer joined the Institute for Nuclear Studies (now the Enrico Fermi Institute). Again, Goeppert Mayer faced nepotism laws, and thus taught courses in the Department of Physics and supervised several graduate students on a voluntary basis. It was not until she accepted an offer from her first graduate student, Robert G. Sachs, for a half-time appointment as a senior physicist at Argonne National Laboratory, that she was paid for her scientific work. At Argonne, she expanded her expertise in complex mathematics into nuclear physics and investigated nuclear properties across the periodic table.


In 1949, Goeppert Mayer and Hans Jensen, working independently, developed a quantum model of the internal structure of atomic nuclei wherein nucleons were distributed in shells with different energy levels. This development explained many features of nuclear stability for the first time. They were awarded the Nobel Prize in physics in 1963 for this discovery. Goeppert Mayer was the first American woman to win the award, and only the second woman after Marie Curie. In 1960, she began her first paid full professorship at University of California, San Diego, where she continued to work through 1965.

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UChicago instructor, developed the nuclear shell model as a senior physicist at Argonne and became the second woman to win the Nobel Prize in Physics

M.G.M. UofC.jpg

Photo Source: University of Chicago Photographic Archive, [apf1-10468], Hanna Holborn Gray Special Collections
Research Center, University of Chicago Library.

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