Maria Goeppert-Mayer

20th Century Mathematician and Physicist

Maria Goeppert-Mayer
Maria Goeppert-Mayer. Public domain image courtesy Wikimedia

Maria Goeppert-Mayer Facts: 

Known for: A mathematician and physicist, Maria Goeppert Mayer was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1963 for her work on the nuclear shell structure.
Occupation: mathematician, physicist
Dates: June 18, 1906 - February 20, 1972
Also known as: Maria Goeppert Mayer, Maria Göppert Mayer, Maria Göppert

Maria Goeppert-Mayer Biography:

Maria Göppert was born in 1906 in Kattowitz, then in Germany (now Katowice, Poland).

Her father became a professor of pediatrics at the University at Göttingen, and her mother was a former music teacher known for her entertaining parties for faculty members.


With her parents' support, Maria Göppert studied mathematics and science, preparing for a university education. But there were no public schools for girls to prepare for this venture, so she enrolled in a private school. The disruption of World War I and the post-war years made study difficult and closed the private school. A year short of finishing, Göppert nevertheless passed her entrance exams and entered in 1924. The only woman teaching at the university did so without a salary -- a situation with which Göppert would become familiar in her own career.

She began by studying mathematics, but the lively atmosphere as a new center of quantum mathematics, and exposure to the ideas of such greats as Niels Bohrs and Max Born, led Göppert to switch to physics as her course in study.

She continued her study, even on the death of her father, and received her doctorate in 1930.

Marriage and Emigration

Her mother had taken in student boarders so that the family could remain in their home, and Maria became close to Joseph E. Mayer, an American student. They married in 1930, she adopted the last name Goeppert-Mayer, and emigrated to the United States.

There, Joe took up an appointment on the faculty of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. Because of nepotism rules, Maria Goeppert-Mayer was unable to hold a paid position at the University, and instead became a volunteer associate. In this position, she could do research, received a small amount of pay, and was given a small office. She met and befriended Edward Teller, with whom she'd work later. During summers, she returned to Göttingen where she collaborated with Max Born, her former mentor.

Born left Germany as that nation prepared for war, and Maria Goeppert-Mayer became a U.S. citizen in 1932. Maria and Joe had two children, Marianne and Peter. Later, Marianne became an astronomer and Peter became an assistant professor of economics.

Joe Mayer next received an appointment at Columbia University. Goeppert-Mayer and her husband wrote a book together there, Statistical Mechanics. As at Johns Hopkins, she could not hold a paying job at Columbia, but worked informally and gave some lectures. She met Enrico Fermi, and became part of his research team -- still without pay.

Teaching and Research

When the United States went to war in 1941, Maria Goeppert-Mayer received a paid teaching appointment -- only part-time, at Sarah Lawrence College.

She also began working part-time at Columbia University's Substitute Alloy Metals project -- a highly secret project working on separating uranium-235 to fuel nuclear fission weapons. She went several times to the top-secret Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico, where she worked with Edward Teller, Niels Bohr and Enrico Fermi.

After the war, Joseph Mayer was offered a professorship at the University of Chicago, where other major nuclear physicists were also working. Once again, with nepotism rules, Maria Goeppert-Mayer could work as a voluntary (unpaid) assistant professor -- which she did, with Enrico Fermi, Edward Teller, and Harold Urey, also by that time on the faculty at the U. of C.

Argonne and Discoveries

In a few months, Goeppert-Mayer was offered a position at Argonne National Laboratory, which was managed by the University of Chicago.

The position was part-time but it was paid and a real appointment: as senior researcher.

At Argonne, Goeppert-Mayer worked with Edward Teller to develop a "little bang" theory of cosmic origin. From that work, she began working on the question of why elements that had 2, 8, 20, 28, 50, 82 and 126 protons or neutrons were notably stable. The model of the atom already posited that electrons moved around in "shells" orbiting the nucleus. Maria Goeppert-Mayer established mathematically that if the nuclear particles were spinning on their axes and orbiting within the nucleus in predictable paths that can be described as shells, these numbers would be when the shells were full -- and more stable than half-empty shells.

Another researcher, J. H. D. Jensen of Germany, discovered the same structure at nearly the same time. He visited Goeppert-Mayer in Chicago, and over four years the two produced a book on their conclusion, Elementary Theory of Nuclear Shell Structure, published in 1955.

San Diego

In 1959, the University of California at San Diego offered full-time positions to both Joseph Mayer and Maria Goeppert-Mayer. They accepted and moved to California. Soon after, Maria Goeppert-Mayer suffered a stroke which left her unable to fully use one arm. Other health problems, especially heart problems, plagued her during her remaining years.


In 1956, Maria Goeppert-Mayer was elected to the National Academy of Sciences. In 1963, Goeppert-Mayer and Jensen were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics for their shell model of the structure of the nucleus. Eugene Paul Wigner also won for work in quantum mechanics. Maria Goeppert-Mayer was thus the second woman to win the Nobel Prize for Physics (the first was Marie Curie), and the first to win it for theoretical physics.

Maria Goeppert-Mayer died in 1972, after suffering a heart attack in late 1971 that left her in a coma.

Print Bibliography

  • Robert G. Sachs. Maria Goeppert-Mayer, 1906-1972: A Biographical Memoir. 1979.
  • Maria Goeppert-Mayer. Statistical Mechanics. 1940.
  • Maria Goeppert-Mayer. Elementary Theory of Nuclear Shell Structure. 1955.
  • Goeppert-Mayer's papers are at the University of California, San Diego.

Selected Maria Goeppert Mayer Quotations

• For a long time I have considered even the craziest ideas about atom nucleus... and suddenly I discovered the truth.

• Mathematics began to seem too much like puzzle solving. Physics is puzzle solving, too, but of puzzles created by nature, not by the mind of man.

• On winning the Nobel Prize in Physics, 1963: Winning the prize wasn't half as exciting as doing the work itself.