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Nuclear Physics

Picture of Maria Goeppert Mayer

Maria Goeppert Mayer


Additional Information

Some Important Contributions:


Discovery of the magic numbers and their explanation in terms of a nuclear shell model with strong spin-orbit coupling. For this she won the 1963 Nobel Prize in Physics, with J.H.D. Jensen who had independently proposed the strong spin-orbit coupling.

She was the first person to investigate the theoretical basis of nuclear pairing, which plays an important role in the shell model of the atomic nucleus.


Maria Goeppert Mayer was an accomplished physicist from the beginning of her career until the end and she made numerous contributions to the field of physics. She was the first person to investigate the phenomenon of double quantum emission and, a few years later, double beta decay. Mayer and Herzefeld were the first to study the effect of magnetic susceptibility on the refractive index of a gas. Mayer and Sachs pioneered the application of the new idea of a Yukawa potential between neutron and proton to the nuclear two-body system. Mayer was the first person to work out the atomic properties of transuranic elements as well. Mayer's last contribution, with Lawson, was the use of the center of mass and relative coordinates for the calculation of shell model interaction energies.

Some Important Publications:

Her Nobel Lecture on being awarded a Nobel Prize: "The shell model" in Les Prix Nobel en 1963. Stockholm: the Nobel Foundation; also published in Science 145: 999 (1964).


"On closed shells in nuclei" Phys. Rev. 74: 235 (1948).

"On closed shells in nuclei II" Phys. Rev. 75: 1969 (1949).

"Nuclear configurations in the spin-orbit coupling model.
I. Empirical evidence," Phys. Rev. 78: 16 (1950).
II. Theoretical considerations" Phys. Rev. 78: 22 (1950).

Elementary Theory of Nuclear Shell Structure. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1955, with J.H.D. Jensen.


"Elementary processes with two-quantum transitions," Ann. d. Physik 9: 273 (1931).

"Double beta-disintegration," Phys. Rev. 48: 512 (1935).

"On the theory of dispersion," Phys. Rev. 49: 332 (1936), with K.F. Herzfeld.

"Calculations on a new neutron-proton potential" Phys. Rev. 53: 991 (1938), with Robert G. Sachs.

"Rare earths and transuranic elements" Phys. Rev. 60: 184 (1941).

"Harmonic oscillator wavefunctions in nuclear Spectroscopy" Phys. Rev. 117: 174 (1960), with R.D. Lawson.


"Dynamic Lattice Theory of Crystals," Handbuch der Physik 24, part 2: 623 (1931), with Max Born.

"The polarizability of ions from spectra" Phys. Rev. 43: 605 (1933), with Joseph Mayer.

"On the states of aggregation" Jrl. Chem. Phys. 2: 38 (1934), with K.F. Herzfeld.

Statistical Mechanics. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1940, with Joseph Mayer.

"Calculations of equilibrium constant for isotopic exchange reactions" Jrl. Chem. Phys. 15: 261 (1947), with Jacob Bigeleisen.

"On the origin of the elements" Phys. Rev. 76: 1226 (1949), with Edward Teller.

"Nuclear shell structure and beta decay" Rev. Mod. Phys. 23: 315 (1951), with S.A. Moszkowski and L.W. Nordheim.

"Radioactivity and nuclear theory" Ann. Revs. of Phys. Chem. 3: 19 (1952).

"Classification of beta transitions," in Beta and Gamma Spectroscopy, Chapter 16.1. North Holland Publishing, Amsterdam 1955.


Member Heidelberg Academy of Science 1950

Member National Academy of Sciences 1956

Nobel Prize in Physics (with J.H.D. Jensen) 1963

    "For their discoveries concerning nuclear shell structure."

The American Physical Society awards a prize in her honor, The Maria Goeppert Mayer Award , annually to an outstanding woman physicist.


1931-39 Volunteer Associate Johns Hopkins University
1939-46 Lecturer, Columbia University
1941-42, 1945 Part-time Teacher, Sarah Lawrence College
1942-45 Manhattan Project
1946-59 Volunteer Associate Professor and Full Professor University of Chicago
1946-60 Senior Physicist Argonne National Laboratory
1960-72 Professor University of California at San Diego


Ph.D. University of Goettingen 1930


A more detailed discussion of her contributions is given by Robert G. Sachs, "Maria Goeppert Mayer, A Biographical Memoir," in Biographical Memoirs vol. 50. National Academy of Sciences, 1979, pp. 309-328.

Additional Information/Comments

Goeppert-Mayer was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize for theoretical physics.

Further information about her life and her physics may be found in Professor S. A. Moszkowski' MARIA GOEPPERT MAYER HOMEPAGE . Professor Moszkowski's doctoral dissertation was written under her supervision.

Biographical print references:
A Life of One's Own, Joan Dash, Harper Row, New York 1973
Nobel Prize Women in Science, Sharon Bertsch McGrayne, Birch Lane Press, New York 1993
Einstein's Wife, Andrea Gabor, Viking, New York 1995.

Married Joseph Mayer with whom she had two children - Marianne and Peter.

Field Editor: Professor S. A. Moszkowski


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latest revision {4/30/97 mjw} 3/16/01 nb