Jennifer Mondfrans

Thematic Painter

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Maria Goeppert-Mayer

  • Theoretical Physicist
  • 1906-1972
      • acrylic and oil on canvas
      • 18" x 24"

Dear You,

I won the Nobel Prize when I solved the mystery of the magic numbers.

These so-called numbers–two, eight, twenty, twenty-eight, fifty and eighty- two are the number of protons in atomic nuclei. No one knew why these elements were so stable. I thought protons and neutrons in the nucleus sit in shells just like electrons and that filling nuclear shells leads to stability. Many didn’t believe that idea.

My work proved that nuclei do have shells and do form what I call magic nuclei. At those numbers, protons and neutrons marshal themselves into highly stable, highly symmetrical spheres. This explains why Oxygen, with eight protons and eight neutrons is doubly magic and therefore eternally stable and explains its seeming overabundance.

Even though now I have a crater on Venus named after me (it’s pretty big at 35 km), a symposium as well as awards for young women scientists and my own postage stamp, I am lucky to have done science at all.

Despite the fact that my father was a sixth-generation professor, I had trouble convincing a Ph.D. program to admit a woman, so I bounced from school to school, taking lectures wherever I could.

After I graduated, no one would hire me. I was grateful my husband got professor jobs. When I followed him to universities and did get offered work, it was for no pay. They wanted me to do topics that were typically “feminine,” such as figuring out what causes colors. Finally, the University of Chicago took me seriously enough to make me a professor of physics. I got my own office, but the department still didn't pay me. I did end up with a paying job as professor at the University of California in San Diego. When the Swedish academy announced in 1963 that I had won my profession's highest honor, the city newspaper greeted my big day with the headline, “San Diego Mother Wins Nobel Prize.”

Love, Maria