It’s been more than 50 years since there was a female winner. We look back at the life and legacy of Maria Goeppert Mayer, the winner in 1963
Physicist Wolfgang Pauli called her “The Onion Madonna,” after she discovered that the nucleus of the atom has an onionlike layered structure. Maria Goeppert Mayer, the last woman to win a Nobel Prize in Physics, claimed that honor in 1963.
Since then many other women have been widely considered worthy, too: Vera Rubin, who died last year, was regarded as a strong candidate for uncovering the existence of dark matter. Jocelyn Bell Burnell played a major role in discovering pulsars but was left off the relevant 1974 Nobel Prize snagged by her (male) graduate advisor. In 2014 Slate published a longer list of women contenders. But to date, Mayer and Marie Curie are the only women who have been named for this particular prestigious prize. That could change October 3 when the Nobel committee announces this year’s winner—but who knows?
With the Nobel announcements approaching yet again, I decided to look deeper into the life and work of Mayer, who is far from a household name. I drove to the sunny campus of the University of California, San Diego, where Mayer was a professor for the 12 years leading up to her death in 1972. At the university’s futuristic-looking Geisel Library, I pored through some of the hundreds of documents from Mayer’s life stored at the Special Collections department: hand-written letters, typed correspondence, notebook pages, postcards, invitations, certificates, photos, newspaper clippings—even the Western Union telegram informing Mayer of her Nobel win. They reveal a life of achievements as well as frustrations, ultimately filled with scientifically minded friends and great discovery.
THE FAMILY BUSINESS
Mayer was born in the German town of Kattowitz, now Katowice, Poland. An only child, she came from a long line of academics and would become the seventh-generation university professor in her family. She earned a PhD at the University of Göttingen in 1930, under the tutelage of Max Born, who would go on to win a physics Nobel himself. Many handwritten letters to Mayer in the archival boxes are from Born, spanning decades.
After graduating, Mayer moved with her husband, chemist Joseph Mayer, to the U.S. When her husband worked at Johns Hopkins University and later at Columbia University, Mayer pursued physics research at both institutions but received a full salary at neither. According to a short biography written at the time of her prize, “no university would think of employing the wife of a professor.” Another sign of the times: the archive has a 1941 typed letter informing Mayer that she was elected as a fellow of the American Physical Society—addressed “Dear Sir.” During World War II she worked on separating uranium isotopes for the Manhattan Project.
After the couple moved to Chicago in the mid-1940s, Mayer held a “voluntary” position at the University of Chicago, and a part-time senior physicist position at Argonne National Laboratory. During these Chicago years Mayer explored the topics for which she would achieve scientific fame. Knowing this, I excitedly flipped through pages of notes and equations scrawled in a small 1947 notebook with a giant letter Q on the front above the name “M. G. Mayer”—Q for quantum mechanics, of course.
Stop breadboarding and soldering – start making immediately! Adafruit’s Circuit Playground is jam-packed with LEDs, sensors, buttons, alligator clip pads and more. Build projects with Circuit Playground in a few minutes with the drag-and-drop MakeCode programming site, learn computer science using the CS Discoveries class on code.org, jump into CircuitPython to learn Python and hardware together, TinyGO, or even use the Arduino IDE. Circuit Playground Express is the newest and best Circuit Playground board, with support for CircuitPython, MakeCode, and Arduino. It has a powerful processor, 10 NeoPixels, mini speaker, InfraRed receive and transmit, two buttons, a switch, 14 alligator clip pads, and lots of sensors: capacitive touch, IR proximity, temperature, light, motion and sound. A whole wide world of electronics and coding is waiting for you, and it fits in the palm of your hand.
Have an amazing project to share? The Electronics Show and Tell is every Wednesday at 7pm ET! To join, head over to YouTube and check out the show’s live chat – we’ll post the link there.
Join us every Wednesday night at 8pm ET for Ask an Engineer!
Maker Business — To make it through a tough business cycle, layoffs should be a last resort
Wearables — Make it pink!
Electronics — SMT Tip – Stop moving around!
Python for Microcontrollers — Python on Microcontrollers Newsletter: PyCon US, Mother’s Day, KiCad and more! #Python #Adafruit #CircuitPython @micropython @ThePSF
Adafruit IoT Monthly — IoT Pool Monitor, Edge AI, and more!
Microsoft MakeCode — MakeCode Arcade Spring Update
EYE on NPI — Maxim’s Himalaya uSLIC Step-Down Power Module #EyeOnNPI @maximintegrated @digikey
New Products – Adafruit Industries – Makers, hackers, artists, designers and engineers! — New Products 5/12/2021 Featuring Adafruit Rotary Trinkey – USB
No comments yet.
Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.