Ada Lovelace Day is only three weeks away! I was going to write about Maryam Mirzakhani for this post, but my expert mathematician is a little busy for the next week or so, and I’m trying to understand exactly what she did (or at least an ELI5 approximation) before I try to tell all of you. So instead, I’ll talk about Maria Goeppert-Mayer, the second (of two) women to ever win the Nobel Prize for Physics. Read on.
Maria Goeppert, later Maria Goeppert-Mayer, was born in 1906 in a part of Prussia that’s now a part of Poland (being, of course, because Prussia is no more). She came from a well-educated family: her father was apparently a sixth-generation university professor, a trait which she must have admired. She attended the University of Göttingen for math in 1924, and by 1930 had written her PhD in physics. That’s age 24 for those of you who will probably progressively think less-and-less-highly of your own accomplishments the more you read about this incredibly brilliant woman.
That same year, she married Joseph Edward Mayer, an American chemist, and moved to the US where he had a job at Johns Hopkins. She had two kids, and, of course, didn’t get a job as a physics professor, probably “because women,” and instead was thrown a bone as an assistant in the physics department there, translating German documents. That position, however, gave her access to the facilities, and she continued to work on her own ideas, publishing papers all the while.
Finally, in 1941, she landed a job at Sarah Lawrence College — an all-female college set up only fifteen years earlier — teaching physics. The next year, with the US at war, she also took a position at Columbia and started working on the Manhattan Project, at first working on finding a source of fissile material and later on the thermonuclear (i.e. the fission-fusion “H-bomb”) bomb. When her husband ended up involved in the Pacific conflict in 1945, she packed up and went to Los Alamos, leaving her kids behind, and only returned once Mayer had as well.
If that wasn’t enough, in 1950 she published a mathematical explanation of something called the nuclear shell model, and for it, in 1963, she became only the second woman in history to receive a Nobel Prize in physics. To date, just to be clear, that’s 196 men and 2 women. The other woman was Marie Curie.
The nuclear shell model is pretty neat. It’s a way of thinking about the structure of atomic nuclei that pretends the nucleus of an atom is like the shells of electrons that go around it. If you took high school chemistry, you might remember that different elements have different properties based in large part on the number of electrons in their “outer” shell. If you throw energy at them, you can knock an electron off — but the closer to a “whole” shell you get, the more energy it takes to do that.
The nucleus of an atom — the bit made of protons and neutrons — behaves in a similar way. If you throw (a lot of) energy at a nucleus, you can knock off a proton or a neutron (together called nucleons). But when the nucleus is at certain specific sizes, numbers of protons and neutrons equal to a series of numbers we call (I know, I know) the “magic numbers,”certain numbers — 2, 8, 20, 28, 50, 82, 126 — are more stable, as though they were electrons completing “shells.”
Maria Goeppert-Mayer’s mathematical model explained why these numbers of protons and neutrons are more stable, and by extension why other numbers are less so. It was a huge leap forward in understanding the way matter works, and you probably haven’t even heard of her. Well, you have now.
Goeppert-Mayer died in 1972, but her legacy lives on: a number of universities give out awards and hold lectures in her name, for example the American Physical Society, which gives out the Maria Goeppert-Mayer Award every year to an early-career female physicist. And there’s a crater on Venus named after her, too.
You can read her Nobel lecture over at the Nobel Prize website, as well as watch a one-minute clip of her receiving her award in 1963.
Richard Ford Burley is a doctoral candidate in English at Boston College, where he’s writing about remix culture and the processes that generate texts in the Middle Ages and on the internet. In his spare time he writes about science, skepticism, and feminism (amazing women in STEM) here at This Week In Tomorrow.
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