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Maria Goeppert-Mayer, the Nuclear Shell Model, and Magic Numbers
While working at Argonne National Laboratory (ANL) in 1948, physicist Maria Goeppert-Mayer developed the explanation of how neutrons and protons within atomic nuclei are structured. Called the "nuclear shell model," her work explains why the nuclei of some atoms are more stable than others and why some elements have many different atomic forms, called "isotopes," while others do not. For this work, she shared the 1963 Nobel Prize in physics.
Goeppert-Mayer was only the second woman to receive the Nobel Prize in physics, following Marie Curie, and only the fourth American woman to win a Nobel Prize.
A member of Argonne's staff for 15 years, Goeppert-Mayer 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.
At Argonne, Goeppert-Mayer 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 her nuclear-shell model, she was at first unable to marshal a theoretical explanation. During a discussion of the problem with [Enrico] Fermi, he casually asked: "Incidentally, is there any evidence of spin-orbit coupling?"
Spin-orbit coupling occurs when two motions are coupled together, such as the earth spinning on its axis as it orbits the sun. In an atom, the electron spins on an axis as it orbits the nucleus.
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."
In 1960, Goeppert-Mayer and her husband moved to the University of California at San Diego, where she served as a professor of physics and continued research in nuclear physics until her death in 1972.
- Edited excerpts from Maria Goeppert Mayer is role model for women scientists
Additional information about Maria Goeppert-Mayer and her work is available in full-text DOE reports, journal articles, and on the Web.
On Closed Shells in Nuclei DOE Technical Report, 1948
Additional Web Pages:
Nobelist Maria Goeppert Mayer, 1906-1972; ANL
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