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Argonne's Nuclear Science and Technology Legacy

Nobelist Maria Goeppert Mayer, 1906-1972

On June 16, 2011, the U.S. Postal Service honored former Argonne physicist and Nobel Prize winner Maria Goeppert Mayer by issuing a new stamp bearing her image.

Argonne's tradition of excellence is reflected in the achievements of Met Lab and Argonne scientists that have led to many prestigious national and international awards. Among the Nobel Prize winners was an Argonne physicist who shared the 1963 Nobel Prize for physics.

This plaque honors Argonne physicist Maria Geoppert Mayer

A plaque at the entrance of Argonne's Physics Building honors Argonne physicist Maria Goeppert Mayer. Click on photo to view a larger image.
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Maria Goeppert Mayer, on Argonne's staff for 15 years, studied theoretical physics under Nobel Laureate Max Born at Göttingen University in Germany. She came to the United States in 1939 with her American husband, chemical physicist Joseph Mayer. They both joined the faculty at Columbia University -- she, because of anti-nepotism rules, as an unpaid "voluntary" teacher -- and became associates of Enrico Fermi. Goeppert Mayer would not hold a paying, full university professorship until she was 53.

Commemorative stamp issued by the U.S. Postal Service featuring physicist Maria Goeppert Mayer

The U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp on June 16, 2011, in honor of Nobel Laureate Maria Goeppert Mayer. Click on photo to view a larger image.
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When Fermi left Columbia to direct the Met Lab project, Goeppert Mayer took over his courses and worked with Harold Urey on separating uranium isotopes as part of the Manhattan Project. The Mayers did follow Fermi to the University of Chicago in 1945 to continue research at the Institute of Nuclear Studies. Her position remained an unpaid "voluntary" one.

Maria Goeppert Mayer

Maria Goeppert Mayer shared the 1963 Nobel Prize in physics for her research on the shell model of the atomic nucleus.
READ ALSO: Maria Goeppert Mayer is role model for women scientists

One of her former students at Johns Hopkins, Robert Sachs, brought her to Argonne at "a nice consulting salary." Sachs would later become Argonne's director. While there, she learned most of her nuclear theory and set up a system of "magic" numbers to represent the numbers of protons and neutrons, arranged in shells, in the atom's nucleus. While collecting data to support nuclear shells, she was at first unable to marshal a theoretical explanation. During a discussion of the problem with Fermi, he casually asked: "Incidentally, is there any evidence of spin-orbit coupling?" Goeppert Mayer was stunned. She recalled: "When he said it, it all fell into place. In 10 minutes I knew... I finished my computations that night. Fermi taught it to his class the next week." Goeppert Mayer's 1948 theory explained why some nuclei were more stable than others and why some elements were rich in isotopes.

The following year, J. Hans Daniel Jensen independently advanced the same theory. They collaborated on Elementary Theory of Nuclear Shell Structure, published in 1955. Goeppert Mayer and Jensen received the 1963 Nobel Prize for physics for their work on nuclear structure. They shared the prize with Eugene Wigner who was honored for his elucidation of the mechanics of proton-neutron interaction -- Wigner, one of the Met Lab team members, designed the Chicago Pile 3 reactor. In 1960, Goeppert Mayer and her husband moved to the University of California at San Diego. She remained there until her death on February 21, 1972.

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Last Modified: Tue, June 5, 2012 8:00 PM