Wednesday Geek Woman: Maria Goeppert-Mayer

Wednesday Geek Woman submissions are currently open.

This is a guest post by Twostatesystem. Twostatesystem is a physicist and feminist who wants to see his field be open and welcoming to all people.

There are two women who have won the Nobel Prize in physics. Most people can name one: Marie Curie. This post is about the other woman, Maria Goeppert-Mayer, who is equally awesome and deserves far more recognition.

Goeppert-Mayer was born a professor’s daughter in Poland, and studied at the University of Göttingen, where she got her PhD. She married an American physicist and they moved to the United States, where she was only able to get unofficial or unpaid positions at the universities where her husband worked. Finally, she was able to get a position (still only part time!) at the new Argonne National Laboratory, while her husband was at the University of Chicago.

While at Argonne, she developed the nuclear shell model independently from others working on the same topic. The model explains why certain nuclei appear to be more stable that nuclei that have nearly the same number of nucleons (protons and neutrons). At its core, the theory rests on the Pauli exclusion principle; like electrons in atoms, which form stable shells (e.g. the noble gases), so too, do nucleons in the nucleus. She was heartened to see that another group, led by Hans Jensen, had developed a similar theory, and they wrote a book together, then later won the Nobel together. She later said that winning the prize wasn’t half the fun of actually doing the work.

Goeppert-Mayer is a tribute to the geek spirit: working for the joy of the work. We cannot retroactively pay her what she deserved (for one thing, she died in 1972!), but we can recognize and remember her and her work now.

Wikipedia: Maria Goeppert-Mayer
Nobel biography: Maria Goeppert-Mayer

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6 thoughts on “Wednesday Geek Woman: Maria Goeppert-Mayer

  1. Mary

    She later said that winning the prize wasn’t half the fun of actually doing the work.

    Goeppert-Mayer is a tribute to the geek spirit: working for the joy of the work.

    I wondered, reading this, if she could possibly have said anything else. There’s pressure on both women and on researcher to never admit that they’d in any way like actual money: women are supposed to do everything for the joy of giving and researchers for the joy of learning. Money or glory isn’t supposed to enter into it, and if it does, glory should substitute for money.

  2. Chronic Geek

    This is a wonderful post and I have to admit that I did not know that there was another woman who had won for Physics.

    As a side note. I have been searching for a good book on a history of women in sciences. Can anyone recommend one?

    1. Mary

      Margaret Wertheim, Pythagoras’s Trousers: God, Physics, and the Gender War might start you off, at least for physics. She has a thesis which you might not agree with, which is that male-dominated physics is overly centered on the expensive search for a Grand Unified Theory and that gender-equal physics wouldn’t be, but that thesis is developed only towards the end of the book.

  3. Brenda

    i know this post is 48 hours old now, but are submissions are closed already? Looks like i missed the deadline.

    1. Mary

      Yes, they were open for two weeks from the time of the “November submissions” thread opening, so, now they’re closed. Another submissions thread will open in December.

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