Women in Science: Maria Goeppert-Mayer and the Nuclear Shell Model

In school Science lessons everyone will have heard about the electron shell model. It was introduced by Niels Bohr, a Danish physicist, at the beginning of the 1900s and explained that electrons move around the nucleus of an atom on distinct shells. Each shell corresponds to a specific electron energy level.

While every Secondary Science student knows about the electron shell model not everyone knows about the nuclear shell model. The latter attributes distinct energy levels to neutrons and protons inside the nucleus. Therefore, it is analogue to Bohr’s electron shell model.

One quarter of the Nobel Prize for the discovery of this model was awarded to a fascinating female scientist, Maria Goeppert-Mayer.

Maria Goeppert was born 1906 in Kattowitz which was then a part of Germany. (Today it is Kattowice in Poland.) Goeppert’s father was a university professor in the sixth generation. He was keen for Maria, his only child, to follow in his food steps and pursue an academic career despite her gender.

Goeppert’s family moved to Göttingen in central Germany in 1910 where her father secured a professorship in Pediatrics. She attended a series of public and private schools in this city. There was only one private school in Göttingen that prepared female students for the ”Abitur”, the exams necessary to attend university. In addition, girls could only take the exam in few places. In 1924 Goeppert passed the Abitur in the city of Hannover being supervised by teachers she had never met before.

At first Goeppert enrolled at the University of Göttingen to study Math. However, she was soon more attracted to Physics and changed her main subject. She would later say about her decision: ”Mathematics began to seem too much like puzzle solving. Physics is puzzle solving, too, but of puzzles created by nature, not by the mind of man.” Goeppert later went on to pursue a PhD in Theoretical Physics in Göttingen, which she was awarded in 1930.

Another big event took place in Goeppert’s life in 1930. She married the American scientist Joseph Mayer whom she accompanied to the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, USA.

American universities at the time would never dream of employing the wife of a scientist. Nevertheless, having access to research laboratories, Goeppert-Mayer continued to carry out experiments in Physics voluntarily in her own time ”just for fun” over the next nine years.

In 1939 Goeppert-Mayer moved to Columbia University along with her husband where she worked on new methods to separate uranium isotopes for the atomic bomb project. When it came to the Manhattan project Goeppert-Mayer was torn. By this time she had become a US citizen and she was against Hitler. However, she knew that the weapon could be used against German family and friends at some point.

The Goeppert-Mayer and her husband moved to Chicago in 1946 where she received her first real research position. It was here, at the University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory, where she worked on the nuclear shell model that would gain her the Nobel Prize. In 1959, the University of Chicago finally made her a full professor in its Physics Department.

Only a year layer, 1960, Goeppert-Mayer as well as her husband were both offered full professorships at the University in California in La Jolla, they accepted. In 1963, Goeppert-Mayer was awarded part of the Nobel Prize in Physics for the discovery of the nuclear shell model.

Goeppert-Mayer died 1972 in San Diego, California.


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