The Second Woman to Win the Nobel Prize in Physics

Fifty-two years after Marie Curie, society believed women were unsuited for academic or scientific work. Maria Goeppert Mayer pursued her interests, anyway. And she became the second woman to win the Nobel Prize in physics.

Portrait of Maria Goeppert Mayer, the second woman to win the nobel prize in physics

Early Life

Friedrich Goppert, and his wife Maria, lived in Kattowitz (now Katowice, Poland). Their only child, Maria Goeppert Mayer, was born on June 28, 1906.

They moved from Kattowitz when her father, a sixth-generation university professor, accepted an appointment as the professor of pediatrics at the University of Göttingen in 1910.

She claimed she was closer to her father because being a scientist; he was a more interesting.

Education

Only one school in 1921 Göttingen would prepare girls to take the university entrance exam, the abitur. It closed its doors a year before she would have graduated.

She took the university entrance exam, anyway. And passed the exam at 17 years old, a year earlier than most. Fewer than one in ten German university students were female.

Maria entered the mathematics program at the University of Göttingen. But changed to physics. It interested her more.

Her doctoral thesis explained her theory of two-photon absorption (aka excitation). Though there was no way to prove her theory then, she earned her doctorate in 1930.

Marriage & Career

American Joseph Edward Mayer boarded with her family. They married on January 19, 1930. The couple moved to the United States. Johns Hopkins University had hired him as an associate professor of chemistry.

The university would not hire Maria as a professor because of strict anti-nepotism rules. Similar rules existed at most universities during the depression. They kept her from getting a job consistent with her education level.

The university hired her as an assistant in the Physics Department. She taught some courses and worked with German correspondence. She received a tiny salary, a place to work, and access to the facilities. That was important to her. She worked with Karl Herzfeld. Herzfeld was an Austrian-American physicist. They collaborated on several papers.

During the summers, she returned to Göttingen to work and collaborate with her former examiner, Born.

She and Joe had two children, Mary Ann and Peter.

World War II

The rise of the Nazis ended her trips to Germany. Soon after the war started, her husband, Joe, was fired. They suspected the dean of physical sciences fired him to get Maria out of the laboratory, but it could have been that there were too many German scientists in the department or because of complaints that his chemistry lectures contained too much modern physics.

He accepted a position at Columbia University in 1940. They gave Maria an office but not a paid or official position. She kept working because physics was fun.

Photograph of the second woman to win the nobel prize in physics, Maria Goppert Mayer, who is  seated at a desk, holding a slide rule. Behind her is a chalkboard with equations written on it.

Within nine years, she produced ten papers applying quantum mechanics to chemistry, one of which became a milestone. Also, with her husband, she wrote Statistical Mechanics, a textbook that sold for 44 years.

National Women’s Hall of Fame

A Paid Professional

She got her first paid professional position in December 1941, teaching science part-time at Sarah Lawrence College.

In early 1942, she joined the Manhattan Project. She was part of a project to discover a way to separate the fissile uranium-235 isotope in natural uranium. It was impractical then.

We found nothing, and we were lucky… we escaped the searing guilt felt to this day by those responsible for the bomb.

Maria Goeppert Mayer via www.nobelprize.org

A Nobel Prize Worthy Idea

After the war, she worked another unpaid job at the University of Chicago. Around that time, she received a part-time job offer to work in nuclear physics at Argonne National Laboratory. She protested she knew nothing about nuclear physics, but took the job.

Two years later (1949), she proposed that inside the nucleus, there was a series of layers of protons and neutrons, arranged like the layers of an onion, with neutrons and protons spinning around their axes and orbiting the center of the nucleus at each level.

After she published her theory, she learned that Hans Jensen and his colleagues had simultaneously made the same discovery. She and Jensen published a book together.

A Full Professorship

In 1959, more than thirty years after beginning her career as a scientist, The University of California, San Diego hired Maria as a full professor.

The Nobel Prize

This photo was taken in 1963, as physicist Maria Goeppert-Mayer (1906-1972) was being escorted by King Gustav Adolf of Sweden to a gala banquet following the ceremony during which she received the Nobel Prize in physics for development of the model of atomic nuclei in which the orbits of protons and neutrons are arranged in concentric "shells".
Maria Goeppert Mayer escorted by King Gustav Adolf of Sweden to the gala after the Nobel Prize Ceremony

They awarded Maria Goeppert Mayer and J. Hans D. Jensen half the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1963 for their proposal of the shell nuclear model. (Eugene P. Wigner of the United States won the other half for unrelated work.)

She was the second woman who won the Nobel Prize in physics, after Marie Curie. (It was another fifty years before another woman won the prize).

Death and Legacy

Maria suffered a stroke shortly after moving to California, but returned to work for years. In 1971, she had a heart attack and slipped into a coma. She never regained consciousness and died of heart failure on February 20, 1972.

In her honor, the American Physical Society (APS) created the Maria Goeppert Mayer Award for young female physicists at the beginning of their careers. Argonne National Laboratory also presents an annual award in her honor to young women scientists or engineers. On Venus, there is a crater about 35 km in diameter that is named Crater Goeppert Mayer. They inducted Maria into the Women’s Hall of Fame and included her in the third American Scientists collection of US postage stamps.

Her impact on science, on physics, was enormous. She changed our understanding of atoms.

Second Woman Who Won the Nobel Prize

Maria Goeppert Mayer didn’t plan to win the Nobel Prize. Didn’t think about it when she made her discovery. She was just excited to find the last piece of the puzzle she wanted to solve.

Being second isn’t losing when you’re the second woman who won the Nobel Prize in physics. But is her name as common as Marie Curie? I didn’t study physics, and I never heard of her before. Did you know Maria discovered the “layers” of protons and neutrons around an atom’s nucleus?

If you liked this post, you might like to read about the woman men wanted to ignore.

Image Credits

Top portrait: Nobel foundation, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Middle portrait: ENERGY.GOV, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Bottom photograph: Smithsonian Institution from United States, No restrictions, via Wikimedia Commons

2 thoughts on “The Second Woman to Win the Nobel Prize in Physics

  1. Thanks for the lovely post. A true giant.

    I sometimes wonder what I might have been under the right circumstances, but women like Goeppert Mayer proved women could do physics (and math and chemistry and biology and…), at least in principle.

    My experience was that you have to be strong enough to take an incredible amount of benign neglect from the good men, and be tough enough to ignore the ones who actively think you don’t belong there.

    Turning myself into a novelist after losing the science to chronic illness (it’s not uncommon for women of science – such as Colleen McCullough – to turn to writing) has one major advantage: I am my only obstacle. To the writing part.

    The marketing part, well, I’m working on it.

    But nobody tells me what I can and cannot do. I’m my harshest critic and my own support system. It’s enough.

    Glad to have found your blog.

    1. Thank you, Alicia. Boy, I hear you about “I am my own obstacle.” And this line, “But nobody tells me what I can and cannot do. I’m my harshest critic and my own support system. It’s enough.” Gets me right here *pointing at my heart* I’m cheering you on from the sidelines!

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