Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Prof. Dr. Maria Göppert-Mayer (June 28, 1906 - February 20, 1972) was born Maria Göppert in Katowice (then in Germany, now part of Poland) and became one of the few women to receive a Nobel Prize in Physics.
Her family moved to Göttingen in Germany in 1910 when her father Frederick was appointed Professor of Paediatrics at the town's university. From a young age, Maria was surrounded by the students and lecturers from the University, intellectuals including future Nobel winners, Enrico Fermi, Werner Heisenberg, Paul Dirac and Wolfgang Pauli. She studied at the university herself; among her professors were the three Nobel prize winners Max Born, James Franck and Adolf Otto Reinhold Windaus. In 1930 Göppert married Dr. Joseph Edward Mayer , the assistant of James Franck. The couple moved to the United States, Mayer's home country.
Göppert-Mayer worked for the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore from 1931-39, but since she was a woman she was not allowed to work on scientific projects. In 1946 she became a professor in Chicago. Here she developed a model for the nuclear shell structure. For this work she received a Nobel Prize in Physics in 1963 together with Eugene Paul Wigner and J. Hans D. Jensen .
She was awarded the Novel for discovering the reasons as to why if there are either 2,8,20,28,50,82,126, nucleons in the nucleus of an atom then the atom is extremely stable. This had been baffling scientists for some time. These numbers are called "Magic Numbers". Maria postulated, against the received wisdom of the time, that the nucleus is like a series of closed shells and pairs of neutrons and protons like to couple together in what is called spin orbit coupling. This is like the Earth spinning on its axis as the Earth itself is spinning around the Sun. Maria described the idea elegantly:
- "Think of a roomful of waltzers. Suppose they go round the room in circles, each circle enclosed within another. Then imagine that in each circle, you can fit twice as many dancers by having one pair go clockwise and another pair go counterclockwise. Then add one more variation; all the dancers are spinning twirling round and round like tops as they circle the room, each pair both twirling and circling. But only some of those that go counterclockwise are twirling counterclockwise; the others are twirling clockwise while circling counterclockwise. The same is true of those that are dancing around clockwise; some twirl clockwise, others twirl counterclockwise."
At the same time, there were German scientists working on exactly the same thing so after they had published their results Maria sought to collaborate with them. One of German team, Hans Jensen, worked with Maria to produce a book in 1950 called Elementary Theory of Nuclear Shell Structure. 1963 saw both Maria and Hans Jensen awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics "for their discoveries concerning nuclear shell structure". Maria was quoted as saying, "winning the prize wasn't half as exciting as doing the work."
Maria Göppert-Mayer died in San Diego.
After her death in 1972, an award was set up by the American Physical Society in her name to honour young female physicists at the beginning of their careers. Open to all female physicists who hold PhDs, the winner receives money and the opportunity to give guest lectures about her research at four major institutions. Two of her former universities honour her too. The University of Chicago also presents an award each year to a young "outstanding" woman scientist or engineer and the University of California San Diego hosts a Maria Goeppert Mayer symposium each year bringing together female researchers to discuss current cience.
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