Maria Goeppert-Mayer

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Maria Goeppert-Mayer (June 28, 1906 – February 20, 1972) was a German-born American theoretical physicist, and Nobel laureate in Physics for proposing the nuclear shell model of the atomic nucleus. She is the second female laureate in physics, after Marie Curie.



Maria Goeppert was born in Kattowitz (now Katowice, Poland), within the German Empire's Prussian Province of Silesia. Her family moved to Göttingen in 1910 when her father Friedrich was appointed Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Göttingen. On her father's side, Goeppert-Mayer was supposedly a seventh-generation professor. From a young age, she was surrounded by the students and lecturers from the university, intellectuals including the future Nobel winners, Enrico Fermi, Werner Heisenberg, Paul Dirac and Wolfgang Pauli. In 1924, Goeppert passed the university's abitur entrance examinations, and then enrolled there in the fall. Among her professors at Göttingen were three future Nobel prize winners: Max Born, James Franck and Adolf Otto Reinhold Windaus. Goeppert completed her Doctor of Philosophy degree (Ph.D.) at the University of Göttingen in 1930, and in that same year, she married Dr. Joseph Edward Mayer, an assistant of James Franck. The new couple next moved to the United States, Mayer's home country.

For the next few years, Goeppert-Mayer worked at unofficial or volunteer positions at the university at which her husband was professor—first at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, from 1931–39, then Columbia University in 1940-46, and after that the University of Chicago. During this time, Goeppert-Mayer was unable to gain a professional appointment at Joseph's universities due in part to both sexism and strict rules against nepotism. However, she was able to find other opportunities, including a teaching position at the Sarah Lawrence College, a research position with Columbia University's Substitute Alloy Materials Project and with the Opacity Project, and she also spent some time at the Los Alamos Laboratory.

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