Maria Goeppert-Mayer life and biography

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Maria Goeppert-Mayer biography

Date of birth : 1906-06-28
Date of death : 1972-02-20
Birthplace : Kattowitz, Germany
Nationality : German
Category : Science and Technology
Last modified : 2010-10-23
Credited as : Theoretical scientist, won the Nobel Prize for physics , for proposing the nuclear shell model of the atomic nucleus

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Maria Goeppert-Mayer was a German born American theoretical physicist who won the Nobel Prize for Physics for proposing the nuclear shell model of the atomic nucleus. This made her the second female laureate in physics after Marie Curie. Maria Goeppert was a woman who fought against all the societal biases and prejudices against women to live her dream of becoming an academician. Maria was unable to receive a full professorship job till the age of 54, but these hurdles never stopped Maria from contributing her bit to the field of physics. To know more about the life, profile, childhood and timeline of the dynamical physicist Maria-Goeppert-Mayer, glance through the article.


The inventor of ‘magical numbers’ Maria Goeppert was born on 28th of June, 1906 in Kattowitz, within the German Prussian Province of Silesia. Maria Goeppert’s family moved to Göttingen in 1910 because her father got appointed as a professor of Pediatrics there. From her father’s family Maria Goeppert was the seventh generation of academician. Her family environment also played a role in shaping Maria’s career. She was surrounded by the students and lecturers from the university, and few intellectuals like Enrico Fermi, Werner Heisenberg, Paul Dirac and Wolfgang Pauli. She attended both the private and public schools and completed her schooling under the guideance of good and inspiring teachers. During those times there was not much opportunity for girls to continue their studies in the university. But determined by her dreams, Maria Goeppert joined a private school that used to train girls for the Abitur examination of the university.

Early Life

In the year 1924, Maria’s hardwork made her clear the university examinations and she enrolled herself in the university in the fall with the intention of becoming a mathematician. While in the university, Maria became the student of Max Born, under whom she was introduced to quantum mechanics and physics. The University of Göttingen was the center for the study of quantum mechanics and physics which gave her an opportunity to meet many famous people in the field at that time. This shifted her interest to the field of physics. Maria’s studies in the university armed her both with the mathematical and non-mathematical approach to physics. The year 1927 brought her sad news of her father’s death, but instead of breaking down and falling apart Maria continued to finish her education and moved forward to get her doctorate in physics with same determination. She spent a year in Cambridge to learn English, where she met Ernest Rutherford, the discoverer of ‘electron’. She returned and completed her Ph.D. at the University of Göttingen in 1930.


Maria Goeppert moved to Baltimore along with her husband after completing her education where she accepted an appointment in the chemistry department of Johns Hopkins University. The 1900s also saw the advent of depression, and the jobs in the market faced a tremendous shrink. However, it was not only the depression but also sexism and rules against nepotism that narrowed down Maria Goeppert Mayer’s career opportunities. After failing to get a full time job at John Hopkins University, Maria worked in an unofficial or volunteer position at the universities where her husband got placed in order to keep her knowledge sharp. At first she worked in the Columbia University from 1940-46 and after that in the University of Chicago.

University of Chicago received Maria with open hands and gave an opportunity to Maria Goeppert to volunteer as an assistant professor of physics. After the establishment of the Argonne National Laboratory on July 1, 1946, Goeppert Mayer was offered a part-time job as a senior physicist in the theoretical physics division. Seeking the opportunity Goeppert Mayer started actively working on the peace time uses of the nuclear energy and became the first to use a computer to work on the criticality problem for a liquid metal breeder reactor. She also continued her work at the University of Chicago, including their institute for nuclear studies.

A notable development to Maria’s career came when Edward Teller encouraged her to work on a model of the origin of the elements. She noted regularity in the specific number of neutrons in nuclei during her research. These specific numbers that she discovered got popular by the name of ‘magical numbers’. She was encouraged all through her research by experts like Fermi whose accidental question, led Maria directly to the concept of the spin orbit coupling shell model of nuclei. These research materials got published a month after the same readings were drawn by Otto Hazel, J Hans D Jensen, and Hans E Suess. Out of the three she met Jensen in 1950 and both together decided to publish a book ‘Elementary Theory of Nuclear Shell Structure’, which got published in the year 1955.

At the age of 54 in the year 1960, Maria Goeppert Mayer accepted a full professorship at the University of California in San Diego. Maria’s great work in the field of Physics not only made her the seventh generation professor in her family but also won her the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1963, which she shared with J Hans, D Jensen and Eugene Paul Wigner.

Other Notable Work
Maria Goeppert Mayer worked out the theory of possible two-photon absorption by atoms in her doctoral thesis. To honor her work and all her fundamental contributions the unit for the two-photon absorption cross section came to be recognized as the ‘Goeppert-Mayer Unit’.


An award was set up by the American Physical Society to honor young female physicists at the beginning of their career in the name of Maria Goeppert Mayer. The University of Chicago presents an award every year to an outstanding young woman scientist or engineer and the University of California at San Diego hosts an annual Maria Goeppert-Mayer symposium in which they bring together female researchers to discuss on current scientific matters. The Goeppert-Mayer on Venus is also named after Maria.

Personal Life

Maria Goeppert got married to Dr. Joseph Edward Mayer, an assistant of James Frank in the year 1930, the same year when she received her doctorate from the University of Göttingen.


Goeppert-Mayer died in San Diego, California, in 1972 after a heart attack that had struck her the previous year had left her comatose.

1906: Maria Goeppert-Mayer was born
1924: Maria Goeppert passed the university’s abitur entrance exam
1930: completed the PhD from the University of Göttingen
1930: Maria Goeppert married Dr. Joseph Edward Mayer
1931: Goeppert-Mayer worked out the theory of possible two-photon absorption by atoms
1931–39: worked in volunteer position in Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland
1940-46: Columbia University
1946: Goeppert was offered a job as Senior Physicist in the Theoretical Physics Division at the Argonne National Laboratory
1955: Elementary Theory of Nuclear Shell Structure, Jensen and Goeppert’s book got published
1960: Maria Goeppert Mayer accepted a full professorship at the University of California
1963: She was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics
1972: Maria Goeppert Mayer suffered a stroke and died in San Diego

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