Maria Goeppert-Mayer

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Maria Goeppert-Mayer (1963)

Maria Gertrude Goeppert-Mayer (born June 28, 1906 in Kattowitz , Upper Silesia , † February 20, 1972 in San Diego , California ) was a German - American physicist . She introduced the shell model of the atomic nucleus and received the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1963 (as the second woman ever) , together with Hans Jensen , who independently and at about the same time also found the shell model of the atomic nucleus.


Maria Goeppert was the only child of Maria Göppert, nee Wolff, teacher of languages ​​and music, and of the later pediatric professor Friedrich Göppert (1870–1927). Her paternal grandfather was the law professor Heinrich Robert Göppert (1838–1882), a great-grandfather was the botany professor Heinrich Göppert and a great-great-grandfather was already a professor of pharmacy. She moved to Göttingen with her parents in 1910 .

For her parents, it was a matter of course that she would study after graduating from high school in 1924. At first Goeppert wanted to be a mathematician , but after three years she switched to physics after attending a seminar on quantum mechanics from Max Born, who later won a Nobel Prize in physics and was a pioneer in quantum mechanics. In 1930 she did her doctorate on elementary acts with two quantum leaps with Max Born. The dissertation dealt with the two-photon absorption that was later important in laser spectroscopy . How scientifically important, the University of Göttingen was then, also because in their revealed Rigorosum also James Franck and Adolf Windaus were present.

She married the Franck employee Joseph Edward Mayer (1904–1983), who later became President of the American Physical Society , and went to the United States with him in 1930. The couple had a daughter and a son. In 1933 she became a US citizen. She taught - no one wanted to pay a professor's wife during the Great Depression , and there were nepotism rules in American universities that prevented both spouses from getting a job - free of charge at Johns Hopkins University (1930-1939), as a volunteer associate , and at Columbia University (1940–1946), where her husband moved in 1939. She was a lecturer in the chemistry department of Columbia University and also from 1942 to 1945 lecturer at Sarah Lawrence College in New York. She and her husband published the book Statistical Mechanics in 1940 . In the 30s she worked closely with Karl Ferdinand Herzfeld and her husband and during this time she dealt with applications of quantum mechanics in chemistry, the lattice theory of crystals and statistical mechanics. She also worked on the nuclear weapons program, at the beginning of 1942 in the calculation of the properties of transuranic elements , then with Harold Urey on photochemical methods for separating uranium isotopes, which, however, turned out to be impractical.

In 1946 she went with her husband to the University of Chicago , where she was a volunteer professor at the Enrico Fermi Institute (she was only appointed professor there in 1959), and worked partly there and at the Argonne National Laboratory (as a senior physicist from 1940 to 1960), that was associated with the university. There she worked with Edward Teller on the origin of the elements. In 1960 she became a professor at the University of California, San Diego , but soon suffered a stroke from which she did not fully recover until her death.


Maria Goeppert-Mayer at work

She is best known for developing the shell model of atomic nuclei simultaneously and independently of Hans Jensen.

During her work with Edward Teller on the origin of the elements, which required the creation of isotope lists, she noticed that atomic nuclei with 2, 8, 20, 28, 50, 82, or 126 protons or neutrons were particularly common and therefore stable. These numbers were later called Magic Numbers by Eugene Wigner . This had already been observed and was reminiscent of the shell structure of the electrons in the atom. However, it was predominantly assumed that a shell model in the atomic nucleus was not possible, on the one hand because of the success of the liquid droplet model for atomic nuclei ( Niels Bohr and others), which described the atomic nucleus as a liquid with collective movement of the nucleus particles, and on the other hand because the strong interaction a lot stronger than the electromagnetic interaction of the electrons in the atom. Maria Goeppert-Mayer, however, found support for the shell model in other core properties, about which she first published in Physical Review in August 1948. A central force such as the Coulomb force for the electron shells in the atom was out of the question if one went beyond 20 nucleons in the nucleus. Enrico Fermi asked them whether a spin-orbit coupling of the strong interaction might not be an option, and that turned out to be the solution to the problem. She sent her paper to Physical Review, where it appeared in 1949. She also learned that Hans Jensen and colleagues in Germany had also found this solution and tried to delay the publication so that the work could appear side by side in Physical Review, which was no longer possible; their work was published in the following issue. Jensen didn't know her before, but met him later, and a friendly and collegial relationship developed between the two. Both wrote a book together on the shell model in 1955 and received the Nobel Prize in Physics for the shell model in 1963.

In her dissertation in 1931, she first described two-photon absorption. The unit GM for the two-photon cross-section is named after her.

Honors and memberships

Maria Goeppert-Mayer with King Gustav VI Adolf of Sweden 1963

In 1963 Goeppert-Mayer shared half of the Nobel Prize in Physics with J. Hans D. Jensen “for their discovery of the nuclear shell structure”, the other half went to Eugene Paul Wigner .

In 1950 she was elected a corresponding member of the Heidelberg Academy of Sciences . From 1960 she held a chair in physics at the University of California . In 1956 she was elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences . In 1964 she was accepted into the American Philosophical Society and in 1965 into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences .

Since 1986 the American Physical Society (APS) has presented the Maria Goeppert-Mayer Award to women who have made outstanding contributions to physical research.

Maria Goeppert-Mayer (MGM) - Chairs to strengthen gender studies at universities in Lower Saxony - with emphasis on the development of international (research) relationships - are from the Lower Saxony Ministry for Science and Culture as part of the Maria Goeppert-Mayer program funded .

A street in Braunschweig was named after Goeppert-Mayer at the end of 2010 .

In Lübeck 's St. Jürgen 2003, Maria-Goeppert- road was inaugurated.

In Munich there is a Maria-Goeppert-Straße in the north of the city near the Allianz Arena .


  • with Joseph Edward Mayer Statistical Mechanics , Wiley 1940
  • with Johannes Hans Daniel Jensen: Elementary theory of nuclear shell structure , Wiley 1955

Literature about Maria Goeppert-Mayer

  • Daniela Wuensch : The last Nobel Prize in Physics for a woman? Maria Goeppert Mayer: A goddess conquers atomic nuclei. Nobel Prize 1963. For the 50th anniversary. Termessos Verlag Göttingen 2013, ISBN 978-3-938016-15-2 .
  • Judith Rauch: Never become a woman when you grow up . In: Charlotte Kerner : Not only Madame Curie - women who got the Nobel Prize . Beltz Verlag Weinheim and Basel 1999, ISBN 3-407-80862-3 .


Individual evidence

  1. This Month in Physics History: August 1948: Maria Goeppert Mayer and the Nuclear Shell Model , APS News, Volume 17, No. 8, August / September 2008
  2. Member History: Maria Goeppert-Mayer. American Philosophical Society, accessed August 23, 2018 .
  3. ^ Maria Goeppert Mayer Program. In: Lower Saxony Ministry of Science and Culture, accessed on November 21, 2011 : "The program enables appointments to W3, W2 or W1 professorships at universities, artistic colleges and universities of applied sciences."
  4. Announcement of street names. (PDF; 112 kB) In: City of Braunschweig, Department of Urban Planning and Environmental Protection, Geoinformation Department, accessed on November 21, 2011 .
  5. Parking garage opening in Maria-Goeppert-Straße. In: Lübecker Nachrichten, accessed on March 4, 2015 .
  6. ^ Maria-Goeppert-Mayer-Strasse. In: Portal München Betriebs-GmbH & Co. KG, accessed on February 26, 2018 .

Web links

Commons : Maria Goeppert-Mayer  - Collection of images, videos and audio files