Maria Goeppert Mayer
Dr. Maria Goeppert Mayer started off studying mathematics but switched to physics and ended up doing groundbreaking work in the realm of nuclear chemistry.
For her doctoral thesis she worked out the theory of possible two-photon absorption by atoms which wasn’t testable in 1930–she would have to wait 31 years for the right equipment to be invented to provide the evidence for her work and to honor her fundamental contribution to this area, the unit for the two-photon absorption cross section is named the Goeppert-Mayer (GM) unit.
Marrying an American scientist, Goeppert Mayer moved to the United States, ending up at Columbia University and while the school wouldn’t hire Goeppert Mayer it did provide her with office space. When Enrico Fermi arrived a few years later he asked her to investigate the valence shell of undiscovered transuranic elements using the Thomas-Fermi model. Dr. Goeppert Mayer correctly predicted that these elements would form a new series similar to rare earth elements.
It was in December 1941 when she would finally be offered her first paid professional position teaching science part time at Sarah Lawrence College and just a few months later was hired as a part time researcher at Columbia’s Substitute Alloy Materials Lab as part of the Manhattan Project. She was also invited to be part of a research team for a wartime program for the development of thermonuclear weapons.
After the war the Mayer’s moved to Chicago where Goeppert Mayer was a voluntary associate professor at the University of Chicago and a part-time senior physicist at the Argonne National Laboratory. Her research into developing a mathematical model for the structure of nuclear shells explained why certain numbers of nucleons in an atomic nucleus result in more stable configurations and postulated that the nucleus is a series of closed shells and pairs of neutrons and protons tend to couple together. Three German scientists had published similar work just a few months before her and the four collaborated on follow up work and for their discoveries concerning nuclear shell structure they were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1963.
Written by Angela Goad