By Rita Patel
Editors Note: This is the second article in a three-part series by Rita in honor of Women's History Month. The last article will appear next Monday.
Shortly after Cecelia Payne-Gaposchkin presented her work on the sun in 1925, Maria Goeppert-Mayer was beginning to make her own waves in physics. After receiving her Ph.D. in physics in her home country of Germany, Maria and her new husband Joseph moved to Baltimore, where he had just been given a position as a professor. Maria also wanted to teach but was not allowed, only being given a job as an assistant working in a makeshift laboratory in a small attic.
After seven years of research in the field of quantum physics, Maria’s husband was unceremoniously fired, leading the family to move to Columbia University, where Joseph was given a paid position and Maria was given the cold shoulder.
Nevertheless, she made some friends, among them Enrico Fermi. While her husband Joseph was paid to teach students, Maria was casually discovering the possibility of rare earth elements. Later, she would join the Manhattan Project, coming up with a new method of separating U-235 from U-238 through the use of lasers. Eventually settling down in Chicago, she developed a model for the structure of nuclear shells, explaining the layers of stable configurations in an atom using the analogy of partners waltzing in a room.
Maria was acknowledged for her work in the field of physics with a Nobel Prize. A San Diego newspaper headline announced her win: S.D. Mother Wins Nobel Prize.
Although the Manhattan project is often thought of as the who’s who of male scientists, there were many women who were integral to its success, such as Maria and fellow immigrant scientist Chien-Shiung Wu. Check out the final article celebrating Women’s History Month next Monday that will feature Chien-Shiung Wu.
Rita Patel is a double-graduate from the University of Pittsburgh with bachelor and master of science degrees in Materials Science Engineering, as well as a certificate in Nuclear Engineering. She has been an ANS national member since 2011 and currently works in Washington, D.C. You can experience her witticisms first hand on Twitter via @RitaTherPita.