Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Sunday, June 28, 2015

Maria Goeppert-Mayer: Theoretical Physicist, Nobel-Prize Winner

Maria Goeppert-Mayer (born 28 June 1906)

In 1963, Maria Goeppert-Mayer was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics--just the second woman to win this award, after Marie Curie (in 1903).

Maria Goeppert-Mayer, 1963
Educated at the University of Göttingen, Maria Goeppert studied mathematics but became interested in physics; she completed a Ph.D. in physics in 1930. In the same year she married Joseph Mayer, an American student studying in Göttingen as a Rockefeller Fellow and moved with him to the United States.

Her academic biography is an interesting study in the career limits for a woman at the time. She received a "very modest assistantship" at Johns Hopkins, where her husband landed a job as a faculty member; she did have access to lab facilities and, after some time, was able to offer "some lecture courses."

She briefly returned to Göttingen, during the summers of 1931, 1932, and 1933 to continue work with the German physicist Max Born, but that work ended once the Nazis came to power. 

After her husband left Johns Hopkins (he was fired--Mayer attributed his termination to a dean's misogyny, believing that the dean didn't like having Maria Goeppert-Mayer in the lab), she followed him to Columbia, where again he held a faculty position and where she had a position that was "even more tenuous" than the one she had had at Johns Hopkins. She got an office, but "no appointment."

In 1941, she was offered her first real academic job, a half-time position, teaching science, at Sarah Lawrence College. She taught there, "on an occasional basis," throughout the war. She also taught part-time for Columbia. Although she briefly worked for the Manhattan Project in 1945, after the war, when her husband took up a position at the University of Chicago, she was offered another "voluntary" position. (Her "voluntary" work included "lecturing to classes, serving on committees, directing thesis students, and participating in the activities at the Institute for Nuclear Studies.")

A part-time job at the Argonne National Laboratory, beginning in 1946, led to the work on the nuclear shell model for which she won the Nobel. In 1960 she was finally offered a regular faculty appointment, one that recognized her as a professor "in her own right," at the University of California at San Diego.

She died in San Diego on 20 February 1972.

While I generally love the insight, information, and supporting material found at the Nobel web site, the biography of Maria Goeppert-Mayer posted there makes me gag. (About the situation at Johns Hopkins, for example, you'll find this: "This was the time of the depression, and no university would think of employing the wife of a professor. But she kept working, just for the fun of doing physics.") But you can read her Nobel lecture, watch a video clip of her receiving the award, and access a photo gallery at the Nobel site by clicking here

A much better biographical essay is at the American Physical Society website. A longer piece, from which I've quoted here, is a "biographical memoir" written by Goeppert-Mayer's student, Robert G. Sachs, for the National Academy of Sciences. There is a biography, Joseph P. Ferry's Maria Goeppert Mayer: Physicist. But I don't know whether to laugh or cry that the only biography of the second woman to have won the Nobel Prize for Physics is a children's book.

And, as you consider the obstacle to employment Goeppert-Mayer had to negotiate, consider that she won her Nobel the very year that Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique.

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