Maria Goeppert Mayer

Aravind Bharathi bio photo By Aravind Bharathi Comment

Maria Goeppert Mayer was an unpretentious woman and the sincerity of her interest in her subjects of study endeared her to all.

Mayer descended from a long line of German scholars; her father was a professor of pediatrics at the University of Gottingen. She also spent her student years at the University of Gottingen, with the exception of one year’s study in the University of Cambridge. As a student she was popular with teachers and students alike. She also met Joseph Mayer in Gottingen and married him in 1930, the same year she took her PhD degree with Max Born. In 1930. the couple moved to Johns Hopkins University; because of the nepotism regulations of that university, and since her husband was a member of the chemistry department, she could only “volunteer” in the physics department there. The couple later moved to Columbia University in 1939 (where similar nepotism rules were in effect). While at Columbia she also taught at Sarah Lawrence College, and during the war she worked on the nuclear-energy Manhattan project in what would later become the Hydrogen Bomb. After the war the Mayers moved to the University of Chicago, and she made a deep imprint on the physics department of that institution as well as on the Argonne National Laboratory where she held the title of senior physicist. It was during this period that she created the shell model for nuclei (independently but almost simultaneously with J. Hans D. Jensen of Heidelberg whose birthday ironically falls two days before that of Mayer’s). In 1960 the couple moved from Chicago to the University of California at San Diego. She became a professor in the physics department; her husband, professor of chemistry. Mayer’s scientific work extended over several areas, all of which she contributed to not only by means of original ideas but also by the lucidity of her exposition and the clarity of the articles (and books) she authored or coauthored. Her first paper, on the probability of the emission of two light quanta in a single atomic transition, is a masterpiece of clarity and concreteness. From the quantum theory of electromagnetic transitions, her attention soon turned to physical chemistry, and she wrote several important papers partly on molecular and partly on solid-state physics. Many of these articles were written in collaboration with Karl F. Herzfeld and a much quoted one on the excited states of the benzene molecule in collaboration with A. L. Sklar. The fine book on statistical mechanics, written by the Mayer couple, also originated in this period.

Because of the secrecy surrounding the work on nuclear energy, very little was published during the period of her work at Columbia and the SAM laboratories. In Chicago, Mayer’s interest soon turned to nuclear physics; her first article on the subject, in collaboration with Robert G. Sachs, is on a subject that remains puzzling to this day—the binding energy of tritium. Her attention soon focused, however, on heavier nuclei, and she proposed the spin-orbit coupling shell model which brought her, in 1963, the Nobel Prize. Her work, however, continued unabated after this discovery, and she wrote more than a dozen articles on nuclear physics—mostly on problems of shell theory and of beta decay.

Throughout the years she was also an avid gardener, and her collection of orchids won much admiration. Maria G. Mayer was the recipient of many honors. In addition to the Nobel Prize, she had half a dozen honorary degrees, was a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the Academy of Heidelberg, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and was also, of course, a fellow of the American Physical Society. Above all, she treasured most friendships of her colleagues, associates and other physicists

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