Mayer, Maria Goeppert, 1906-1972

Alternative names
Birth 1906-06-28
Death 1972-02-20

Biographical notes:

Maria Goeppert Mayer was born on June 28, 1906 in Kattowitz, Germany, to Friedrich and Maria (nee Wolff) Goeppert. In 1910 she moved with her parents to Gottingen where her father taught pediatrics at the University. She enrolled at the University at Gottingen in the spring of 1924 with the expectation of pursuing a career in mathematics, but soon became attracted to physics and the developing field of quantum mechanics. In 1930 Mayer took her doctorate in theoretical physics under the direction of Nobel prize winners Max Born, James Franck, and Adolf Windaus.

While completing her studies at Gottingen she met and married Joseph Edward Mayer, an American post-doctoral fellow working in physical chemistry under James Franck. Together they moved to Baltimore, Maryland where Joseph taught at the Johns Hopkins University. In 1939 they went to Columbia University. There Maria worked under the direction of Harold Urey at the S.A.M. (Strategic Alloy Metals) Laboratory which researched the separation of isotopes of uranium. She co-authored a text entitled STATISTICAL MECHANICS (1940) with her husband. After the war she took a professorship of physics at the Institute for Nuclear Studies, University of Chicago. During this period Mayer began a long correspondence with Edward Teller.

In 1948, Mayer began work on nuclear shell structure and the meaning of the "magic numbers"- those nuclei that have a special number of protons. She postulated these numbers to be the shell numbers of a shell model, a "nuclear counterpart to the closed shells of electrons" at the atomic level. In 1950 she met and began a collaboration with Johannes Hans Daniel Jensen which led to the publication of the book entitled ELEMENTARY THEORY OF NUCLEAR SHELL THEORY (1955). In 1963, Maria Mayer was awarded the Nobel Prize jointly with Hans Jensen for their work on the Shell Model.

Maria Goeppert Mayer came to the University of California, San Diego, in 1960 as a professor of physics. At San Diego she taught while conducting research in nuclear physics under grants administered by Keith Brueckner. During this period Mayer publically encouraged young women to pursue careers in the sciences. She was a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the Akademie der Wissenschafter in Heidelberg, and the Philosophical Society. After a protracted illness, she died on February 20, 1972.


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  • Women scientists
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  • Superconductivity
  • Quantum theory
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  • Nuclear physics
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  • Women physicists
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  • California--San Diego (as recorded)