To date, 51 women have won the prestigious Nobel Prize in distinguished fields. Maria Mayer is one of these genius women, rather, the first woman ever to have earned this honor in the field of theoretical nuclear physics. However, many people believe that Marie Curie was the first woman to win it in this field.

Although Marie Curie was the first woman to have won this award in 1903, she won it for her work on radioactivity (particularly radiation physics), not nuclear physics. The field of nuclear physics stemmed from discovering the atomic nucleus in the second decade of 1900. This article aims to learn about the lesser-known life of Maria Mayer and what lead her way to the Nobel Prize.

Maria Goeppert Mayer
Image courtesy: wikipedia
Maria Goeppert Mayer

Early life and education

Maria Mayer was born on June 28, 1906, in Kattowitz, which was part of Germany at that time. In 1910, her family moved to Göttingen, where her father was a professor of pediatrics. Maria’s father always encouraged her to grow up to be more than a housewife. So after attending public school and a college preparatory academy for girls, in 1924, she entered the University of Göttingen.

At first, she intended to study mathematics. But after attending Max Born’s quantum mechanics seminar, she switched her focus to physics. Consequently, she completed her Ph.D. in 1930 with a brilliant thesis on double photon reactions.

Marriage and the struggle for recognition

After completing her Ph.D., she married the American chemical physicist Joseph E. Mayer. Together they moved to Baltimore, United States. Unfortunately, for years after moving to the United States, nepotism played its part. Despite being highly deserving, Maria Mayer was still only getting offered jobs with no pay or unofficial jobs in University laboratories. But the lady never gave up!

Joseph E Mayer and Maria Mayer
Image courtesy: Science photo library
Joseph E Mayer and Maria Mayer
Image courtesy: Science photo library

Over the next nine years, she got associated with Johns Hopkins as a volunteer associate. During that time, she collaborated with Karl Herzfeld and her husband in the study of organic molecules. She became a U.S. citizen in 1933. After six years, in 1939, she and her husband both received appointments in chemistry at Columbia University, where Maria Mayer worked on separating uranium isotopes for the atomic bomb project. The Mayers published Statistical Mechanics in 1940 and remained at Columbia throughout World War II.

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The groundbreaking discovery and the Nobel Prize :

However, after World War II, Maria shifted her focus to nuclear physics, unknowingly setting herself on a path to the most groundbreaking discovery of her life. During that time, studying the nuclear structure and magic numbers was one of the hottest research topics. In 1937, Neils Bohr and F. Kalcar proposed the liquid drop model of the nucleus, where the atomic nucleus was compared to a liquid drop.

Although this model is of utmost importance to understand some of the basics of binding energies, it could not explain why some nuclei having protons or neutrons or both as 2, 8, 20, 28, 50, 82, 126 (magic numbers) have higher binding energies, making them more stable than others. This led scientists to find a better model for enhanced explanations. This is where Maria Mayer’s shell model came into the picture.

No doubt, the shell model was first proposed by Dmitry Ivanenko in 1932. But, to understand the ambiguity about magic numbers, it was further developed independently by Maria Mayer and some other physicists in 1949. The nuclear shell model is partly analogous to the atomic shell model, which describes the arrangement of electrons in an atom in that a filled shell resulting in greater stability.

Maria Mayer – The First Woman To Win The Nobel Prize For Nuclear Physics. 2
Magic numbers as explained by the shell model

This model proved instrumental in explaining the existence of magic numbers and the stability and high binding energy based on closed shells. It also explained the ground state spins and the magnetic dipole moment of nuclei. This enhancement of the shell model helped Maria Mayer to step up to the podium in Stockholm, Sweden, to accept the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1963.

Other notable works

Most of Maria’s other works, which are not well known, demonstrate her unusual physical intuition. Much of this work has remained unchanged since the 1930s and provides theoretical bases for several important developments in laser physics, laser isotope separation, double-beta decay, and molecular orbital calculation.

Maria Mayer – The First Woman To Win The Nobel Prize For Nuclear Physics. 3

During World War II, she contributed significantly as a member of the Manhattan Project team. She also worked as a lecturer in some distinguished institutes. This includes accepting an appointment at the University of California at San Diego in 1960.

Goeppert-Mayer died due to heart failure in San Diego, California, on February 20, 1972, aged 65. Maria’s life is nothing short of an inspiration. Though she faced some problems at the beginning of her career, her perseverance helped her pave her way through all the obstacles, consequently winning the highest honor in science. Happy Birthday, Maria!

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