WoW Blog (Woman of the Week) Blog

WoW Blog (Woman of the Week)

Each week this blog will feature a prominent woman who made significant contributions to engineering or science. If you have any women you'd like us to feature please let us know and we'll do our best to include them.

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Woman of the Week – Maria Goeppert-Mayer (1906–1972)

Posted December 12, 2011 9:50 AM by SavvyExacta

Mathematician and physicist Maria Goeppert Mayer was the second woman (the first American woman) to win the Nobel Prize in physics (1963). She developed the nuclear shell model of atomic nuclei. The prize was shared with J. Hans D. Jensen and Eugene Wigner.

Goeppert-Mayer was originally from Germany and moved to the U.S. with her husband, Joseph Mayer, when he received an assistant professorship at Johns Hopkins University. This was in 1930 and during the Great Depression. Goeppert-Mayer worked for the fun of doing physics; during those difficult times nobody would employ a professor's wife.

From 1930-1938 Goeppert-Mayer produced ten papers and a textbook. She and her husband co-authored a textbook, Statistical Mechanics.

Eighth-generation professor Goeppert-Mayer began to teach part-time at Sarah Lawrence College in 1941. Previously working as a scientific volunteer, she was 53 when she first obtained a full-time job in her field. She held a teaching position in the Physics Department of the University of Chicago and also worked at the Institute for Nuclear Studies.

Goeppert-Mayer worked with Edward Teller at Argonne National Laboratory to develop the "little bang" theory of cosmic origin. She also worked on the question of why elements that had 2, 8, 20, 28, 50, 82, and 126 protons or neutrons were stable. She established mathematically that nuclear particles spinning on their axes and orbiting within predictable paths in the nucleus were described as shells. These numbers would be when the shells were full, thus, more stable than half-empty shells.


  • Member Heidelberg Academy of Science (1950)
  • Member National Academy of Sciences (1956)
  • Nobel Prize in Physics with J.H.D. Jensen "For their discoveries concerning nuclear shell structure." (1963)
  • The American Physical Society awards a prize in her honor, The Maria Goeppert-Mayer Award , annually to an outstanding woman physicist.

Resources:,_Maria_Goeppert@844444444.html [image]


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